Bridget Coon part 1 | #029 06/29/2020

She used to have an office next door to the White House, but Bridget Coon says she's happy to be back in Washington state, growing beef and hay near the tiny locale of Benge, WA.

Transcript

Bridget Coon:
So even though they’re going to a larger processing facility, they’re going to be marketed under a brand that you might be familiar with seeing in the grocery store, that’s coming from ranches, family ranches like ours.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
From growing up on a farm in Western Washington to working next door to the White House, then back to Seattle and now farming in Eastern Washington, our guest this week has done so many things and has so much cool professional background, but she also has a really cool personal story. Bridget Coon, she and her husband and their family raise beef on a ranch in Benge, Washington. And as she says on her website, you’re probably going to have to Google where exactly that is.

Dillon Honcoop:
She shares how she got to know her husband, how she ended up in this career in politics and how that eventually led her back to her farming roots. And we also get into some of the sticky issues too, about food and about beef and the controversy. You’re really going to love this one. She’s a lot of fun to hear from and hear her stories. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this is the Real Food Real People podcast documenting my journeys across Washington State to get to know the real farmers and ranchers. And this week we talk with Bridget Coon on her ranch in Benge, Washington.

Bridget Coon:
We raise beef out here. It’s this really dry rocky scab land, and so about the only thing you can grow on it is beef. And we also raise hay for premium and export market, and then of course, those two commodities work together on our farm and ranch where we can feed hay throughout the winter.

Dillon Honcoop:
So some of your hay is for your cows.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the rest you sell to-

Bridget Coon:
Primarily, so we have basically two enterprises or two parts of our family farm with the hay and ranch with the cattle.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how does that work? How do you determine like which land you do hay on and which you do cattle on?

Bridget Coon:
So like I said, most of this is we’re in the channeled scab lands here. It was carved out a million years ago in the Missoula floods, and it’s just a lot of rock. You can’t grow anything. You can’t till it. You can’t farm it. So cows are about the only thing that can come from it that turns into food.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s still quite a bit of grass and stuff though, around the rock, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yes. So it’s just what we’d call range land, and cattle are really good at taking what’s growing out here and we just do our part to manage the land, determine how many head of cattle can graze a pasture and keep the pasture healthy for us to be able to do this year, decade, generation after generation. That’s kind of our … that’s our job, I mean-

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you tell, like how do you know how many cows to put on a field, cattle I guess I should say.

Bridget Coon:
Cattle, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
I grew up around dairy so all the cows-

Bridget Coon:
All your cows are cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the cattle were cows, yeah. But you have boys and girls.

Bridget Coon:
Yes, we do. So we mostly have, we are what’s considered a cow calf operation or a cow calf ranch. And so what we do is we have a herd of mother cows, and then we have a little squad of bulls and the cows are bred each year to produce a calf each year. And then the calf stay here for about a year nursing their mothers. Eventually weaning, but grazing on this grass. And then those go on to finish at a feed yard before they’re ready for slaughter. And so it’s just really this continuous cycle year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, if we’re doing it well.

Bridget Coon:
And then each year it varies how many cattle we can run on a given pasture based on how much moisture we’ve had based on our decisions the year before and whether or not we are kind of on the money with moisture and that equation. So I’m learning a lot still.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happens if you have too many cattle on a certain chunk of land?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, gosh, this is where it gets so complicated because some of the better practices in range land management are actually, if you can put in the time and effort to create smaller paddocks within a pasture, and actually what we’d call intensively graze these cattle. And they come in and they do this really great work by essentially controlling. They control the weed population. They basically graze just the right amount of grass to where it’s left to where it can regrow. And then we move them on to another fresh pasture and only rotate them back to that pasture.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s maybe less about the total number of animals and more about those decisions on timing and moving animals and giving the pasture rest that it needs to come back before you bring cattle back on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because basically, and correct me if I’m wrong, if you have too many cattle on a certain amount of land for too long and they eat it down too far, you’ll basically kill all that grass and stuff, that’s they’re-

Bridget Coon:
It just won’t come back to the level that you want it to. Yeah. You’re like, oh, you’re overworking it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So yeah. So that’s what you’re managing?

Bridget Coon:
You’re really, you’re managing grass. And then of course we have a lot of … we have our animal health and we have our decision making as far as how many cows we decide to be here. Genetics, deciding what type of bulls we’re breeding to our cows. But the basic job on our level of raising beef is managing land so we can grow cattle on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, the cattle are eating this grass on scab land. I saw it driving in like there’s rocks everywhere. So like you said, you can’t farm it. You couldn’t go in there and run a cultivator and plant whatever crop. So is that grass just the grass that’s always been there, or do you kind of like put seed out there or like?

Bridget Coon:
So most of the range land isn’t seeded, but then we have some areas where we can come in and do some supplemental seeding. I know in the past, before I was here, my father in law has worked with WSU on test plots of different types of native grasses that could be seeded or could be managed out here to benefit the range and benefit cattle. So it’s a cool time to be doing this because we have a lot of tradition and a lot of knowledge from generations and generations of doing this. But then we also have some really cool research from the university level and some collaboration we can do there to keep doing what we do better, and that’s kind of the spot that we try to live in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s a whole soil health thing, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then like even climate change related.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as like carbon sequestration and all that kind of stuff that these practices accomplish, right?

Bridget Coon:
Cows are really cool in that regard. And I think it’s through that overlooked piece of our food system that it’s pretty trendy to just sort of blame everything from climate change to other environmental problems on cattle. But really what we’re able to do with cattle in the US is take ground that could not be used for food production and cattle use it. But I don’t know, I mean, luckily you didn’t hit a deer on your way here, but we have a really-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know my car looks like it.

Bridget Coon:
… healthy meal dealer population, pheasants, quail, you name it, like every everything you can think of as far as other wildlife. So it’s any ground, any land that cattle are using, it’s really a multiple use proposition.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, because a lot of people say, well, cattle are so inefficient because they use all this land to grow the feed for them to eat, to turn into beef that we eat. But I realized as I was driving here after miles and miles of this ground that I saw was loaded with these monster boulders and ravines and just all kinds of rock, like you couldn’t go out there and grow people food.

Bridget Coon:
No, no, that’s definitely a myth where cattle compete for the land we need to grow other food for people. It’s just a myth because when you actually add up the acreage of cattle on range, it’s not competing, it’s actually just adding to the party.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Really cool stuff and I’ve been learning more about the whole soil health thing too. So it was cool to hear you explain this whole like intensive grazing thing, because I had heard about that. And at first I’m like, what, like how does that actually improve soil health? And then I read some books kind of explaining the science of what happens with like a grass plant and when it gets pulled on by a cow, which is kind of like the what? Bovines, which were historically like bison across the plains here.

Bridget Coon:
Ruminant animals.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was kind of the same thing that they did on these range lands, right? In time in memorial.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, as far as this land, highest best use for sure is running cattle on it. And then it’s up to people like us to make decisions that make it actually feasible as far as environmentally. And then we have to make it somewhat profitable in order to continue to do what we do here. And so when we talk about sustainability, but I mean the definition to, I know like the cattle industry, we really think of it in that, kind of that way where we need to have environmental sustainability, just because its natural resources based.

Bridget Coon:
And we’re the first ones to notice if that natural resource starts to disappear, starts to degrade. And then taking care of the animals, animal welfare, we have to have healthy animals, otherwise it does not turn into the product that we need it to. And then it has to be sustainable economically for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the food question, then what makes great beef? I love an excellent steak. I recently did a London broil and I was like, whoa, this is really different flavor than my sirloin that I usually like to grill and just different thing. I love beef. There’s a lot of flavor going on there. There’s a lot of protein. My body likes it. I know a lot of people … For a long time red meat was like this terrible thing, but I’m more like, I’m not Keto, but like I need my protein and I need to stay away from my carbs. What does it take on your end to create that?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. A lot of people these days are on the protein train and for good reason, because they can just kind of see it’s the food that when you eat it, I mean, you feel good. You feel like it really helps you. We know scientifically it helps as far as maintaining, especially at our age, when you get to your mid 30s or later.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, are you calling me old?

Bridget Coon:
I don’t know, I don’t know how old you are. But I know for myself and some of the research we know is that as soon as we get to a certain age level, if we don’t do things to maintain or grow muscle mass, we start losing it and eating an adequate amount of protein is really important to that. So as far as beef goes, I mean, it’s kind of whatever your preference is, but in the US and on an operation like ours, we are really focused on hitting that prime or choice grade bullseye, which is indicated … the grade is determined by the amount of intermuscular fat or marbling that ends up, the flavor inside those steaks you were just talking about.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not the big chunks of fat around the edges. It’s the stuff that’s in them.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. And so what someone who’s enjoying a steak thinks about as far as quality is similar to what I would, as I’m enjoying a steak, but from the people who are actually raising it, it also, again, has to hit those other markers where the cows that we have here need to be bred to actually perform or be healthy here and raise calves each year, and that’s what helps us be sustainable in our business. And then those have calves that end up having those great beef traits as we’ve call it where they’re healthy, they gain weight well and stay healthy while doing it. And then they end up with all kinds of delicious buttery marbling.

Dillon Honcoop:
Stop, you’re making me hungry. But like, if you guys didn’t … like let’s say you manage really poorly hypothetically, would at the end of the day, I’d be able to taste that in the beef? Like oh, this isn’t as good.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not so much what you would taste at the end of the day as it is if it wasn’t an efficient process to get that animal into the final stage of being food, you kind of just end up with a product that is really useful. There’s actually really not any unsafe. Once you get to that level where an animal’s ready for slaughter and it’s slaughtered and it goes through the process when it’s graded, then it’s determined where it goes, right? So I mean, we can all enjoy a five guys hamburger too.

Bridget Coon:
We can all enjoy sort of beef in different contexts. So if you don’t do like this fantastic job with breeding and feeding and finishing and getting to that prime or choice grade, not the end of the world for the person eating, because that product ends up in [inaudible 00:14:21], you know what I mean? There’s so many different ways that beef ends up in kind of our food world that, it’s kind of all good in a different way.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is going to be one of those interviews where I just end up really hungry at the end of it.

Bridget Coon:
You staring at the taco soup, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
You just stared at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

Bridget Coon:
It’s pretty good. You’re going to have some.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just going to just forget about that because I don’t want to eat here on the microphone while we’re conversing.

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to have some.

Dillon Honcoop:
That just doesn’t sound good to those listening to the podcast.

Bridget Coon:
It’s kind of gross.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly. So I’ll eat later, but you mentioned, oh, getting like a five guys burger, there’s so many different places you can get beef. All the way from Mickey D’s to fancy fine dining. How here in Washington, my big focus is I want to get food that’s grown here in Washington, if at all possible. I’m not like mega strict about it, but when it’s possible and doable, I want to do that. How can people do that with beef? How do they know it’s say from Washington or if they don’t know that for sure that it’s at least from the US?

Bridget Coon:
Sure. So there’s a few different ways. Like I said, just like there’s as many varieties of beef that end up on the dinner plate, there’s different ways that people can go about sourcing their beef and making those choices. So the most direct way to know that your beef is coming from a local rancher is to find one that sells directly to the public.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are more and more doing that?

Bridget Coon:
So interesting you say that. There is a lot of indication as far as like search traffic online and local butcher shops that do this kind of slaughter are getting booked out months if not into next year. So definitely, I think we’ve seen people now in this COVID-19 context, going into the grocery store and seeing space in the meat case that given retailer, pick whatever retailer you go to, and there’s some space there and Americans are not used to seeing that space.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, with that panic buying like a couple months ago, I know I’d never seen empty shelves of any kind in a grocery store, like where they’re legitimately out of food. And I think most anybody in the US who has grown up here and always lived here has never, ever seen that until now. So that’s a big game changer, but from people I talked to, they were already kind of moving in the direction of, “Hey, can we like just sell it right from the ranch one way or the other? Like is there an Amazon for beef, you know?”

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. There’s a lot of cool things taking place in this space and watching consumers link up with producers, but keep in mind … So for example, the beef that is raised right out here on this ranch goes to typically a feed yard in Othello. We either retain ownership there where we pay the feeder by the rate of gain or days on feed. But we retain the ownership and then we are paid when those animals are ready and they go down to the packing plant.

Bridget Coon:
So even though they’re going to a larger processing facility, they’re going to be marketed under a brand that you might be familiar with seeing in the grocery store or generically into restaurants where you’re not seeing a brand, that’s coming from ranches, family ranches like ours. And I think people maybe the impression at this day and age, because we have this big, efficient food supply typically, other than right now, you can go into a Walmart, you can go to Fred Meyer, you can go into a Safeway and you just have like your pick of every cut of beef you could ever imagine.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, all the time.

Bridget Coon:
And-

Dillon Honcoop:
The only decision is how much do I want to spend on it, and do I go for the cheaper cut or not?

Bridget Coon:
Exactly. So we are used to all these choices, right? And so then for an outfit like ours, we’re not really close to consumers if you notice. Did you pass a lot of people on your way?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, in fact, I didn’t see anybody for like a half hour before I got here.

Bridget Coon:
So other than like my persuasion to be, I work in the digital space and I find it really fascinating. Some of the digital marketing and different things we could do. My background with my family before coming here was we fed cattle and finished cattle. And so I’m familiar with it and I like it. So it’s always kind of in the back of my mind that we could do some more direct marketing than we have in the past and make it a thing. But it’s not really that efficient.

Bridget Coon:
Like if we’re spending our time doing that, then we have less time to do like the temporary fencing it requires to make these small paddocks, to intensively graze. We have irrigation water to move with the hay. It’s really about all these individual ranches. If you have the human resources and the desire to connect with consumers that way, it’s possible and can be beneficial. But at this time, like it’s probably not the best use of our energy when we do what we do really well, the feed yard that our calves go to, they do what they do really well. They get feed right from around Othello. They get corn and hay, and they get a grape Burmese from the grape stuff. I don’t know what the word is.

Dillon Honcoop:
From wine.

Bridget Coon:
From wine making, and that’s all done closer to them than it is to us. And so feeds kind of come into those animals and they do a great job, and we get the results back that we’re hitting that choice and prime target consistently, and we’re providing that consistent product to typically the consumer desire to have that at will at any grocery store that they go to.

Bridget Coon:
So I mean, interested in it, love to see it. I have a client that we launched a website in order to help them do more of that and sold out an inventory of beef that we projected to last two months in two weeks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bridget Coon:
We have a local beef directory on the beef commission website wildbeef.org. There’s 400% increase in page views on this tool where people in Washington can do it, use a drop down by county and find people that we have listed there that are doing this.

Dillon Honcoop:
These friends of yours that just started going, trying to do some direct sales, they couldn’t have picked a more perfect time to do it.

Bridget Coon:
Totally coincidental. It’s a project we’ve been working on. I know they have been thinking about for a long, long time, and we’d been working on for about a year to get it kind of just so, and we’re kind of ready to roll with that at this time. And so, I mean, for their business and everything, I think actually they’ll be pretty successful consistently. And there’s some interest related to this and I can’t deny it just based on everything else that I see. But if anything, this situation, people who have considered buying directly from a rancher, a lot of that usually involves buying more in bulk. We can only raise … there’s only so many cuts per animal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s not the same as shopping the meat case, I’d say that people-

Dillon Honcoop:
Where you just want the rib-eyes.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. Like there’s only so many rib-eyes. So people have to think of it like going to shop their freezer for beef instead of going to the grocery store to shop it? And so it’s a shift, it’s convenient. I think most things, most foods, new food marketing has focused on convenience because people are busy. Like your life is run by work and activities and people are on the go.

Dillon Honcoop:
But COVID has totally like messed with that, because a lot of people-

Bridget Coon:
At home.

Dillon Honcoop:
… aren’t on the go.

Bridget Coon:
Like baking bread.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they’re seeing shortages in the grocery store, and even if there is meat there it’s maybe more expensive than it used to be. And so then, like you’re saying, they’re suddenly interested in, “Hey, maybe could I get this like straight from the farmer, straight from the rancher and how would that work?” So it’s totally turning a lot of those things on their head. Like maybe people will suddenly be, I guess we just don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID and how long this goes on and how much of our world continues to be turned upside down. But could this be the moment for local food and for local meat or regional even?

Bridget Coon:
It’s having a moment, and like I said, it’s really cool to see some of those connections being made. Those seeds were already there for a lot of consumers, and this is like pushing them to take action and actually buy from someone or do more in depth research too.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then once they had, they’re like, “Hey, this wasn’t actually so hard,” or like, “I have a relationship now with this ranch, that’s where I get our meat from and we like them.”

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. When it’s not really desirable. I mean, some of the consumer research that I’ve seen, people are going to the grocery store multiple times a week. Obviously I can’t relate.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It’s a bit of a drive from where you’re at to the grocery store.

Bridget Coon:
We’re out here. So I don’t-

Dillon Honcoop:
How far is it by the way?

Bridget Coon:
So there’s a little grocery store in Ritzville, it takes about 40 minutes, but then to like a Safeway, Walmart, Costco, it’s an hour, everything’s like an hour in any direction you can think of. So I don’t have those habits, but I know looking at it, people typically are just sort of going in and out of the grocery store. Well, when you have to wear a mask and there’s like arrows, it’s very, I mean, I’m a little antsy because I don’t go very often and I have to call my friend and be like, “Okay, so what are people doing? What’s socially acceptable in the grocery store right now because I don’t know, because I haven’t been since it started.”

Bridget Coon:
So yeah, you’re taking what was a convenient choice and kind of, it’s not so appealing anymore. And then here’s another choice that maybe wasn’t perceived as convenient, but maybe people will learn that it’s really not as hard. That being said, economically, there’s still only a certain set of consumers that have the savings or have the room to buy in a way that works better for the rancher typically to be efficient. Again, we’re not selling one or two … what would happen if you just only sell individual cuts just from one ranch say our size or maybe a little bit bigger than ours?

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to run out of rib-eyes, you’re going to run about tenderloins. You’re going to end up sitting on these other products. And so I think I’d say if I had any messages, it would be like learn to be a good customer to a rancher that you’re working with, and like let them lead you, expectation-wise on their offering a box that they’ve decided on or they’re offering it by the half or the quarter or the whole, it’s for a reason and it’s because they need to be able to make a living off of this. So just learn what you can. Ask questions and really listen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Buy a freezer.

Bridget Coon:
Get a freezer first. But I’ve heard there’s been a run on freezers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, if you can find one, a lot of people have gotten freezers and you’re talking about this whole convenience thing and people’s money. There’s been a big shift in that too. And I think we’re all really worried that none of us are going to have very much money in coming months and years with the economic forecasts and really scary things like that. But at the same time, like the panic buying and the staying at home changed people’s priorities with that too, where it’s like, oh yeah, I need to spend more of at least the money that I do have right now on my food, because suddenly like survival instinct comes back into play. So maybe I will spend some more money so I can get beef and good food at the store. Like all this panic buying was incredible. To watch what people bought was fascinating to me.

Bridget Coon:
I still am puzzled by water and toilet paper. It not an earthquake.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, we’ll never ever figure out the toilet paper one.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not an earthquake. It’s not as tsunami, it’s not a natural disaster. No, I think … I’m kind of the mind that, and this is what kind of annoys me about our food culture today and what I see kind of out there is that everyone wants to have an either or mentality, like this is a good way to buy beef and this is a bad way to buy beef and I have to be able to track it back to the farm, and if I can’t, then I don’t trust it or something. And that’s not how people’s actual buying habits end up taking place except then we all go to five guys or whatever.

Bridget Coon:
But at the end of the day, it’s not either or, it’s and, and so it’s great that there’s choices. And then that again, people are actually acting on some of those choices, but hopefully also learning more about how we raise beef. So when people get really like specific preferences, I want grass fed or finished only, I want organic only or whatever. But to me, I’m seeing a lot of these really, it’s almost like rushing to have a stance, almost like you would a political position, on beef, on food, the types of food choices we make, but they don’t know the difference between a cow and a steer and a bull and a heifer. I mean, in a lot of cases, they just don’t have like the basic knowledge of how we raise cattle. And so to me, it’s odd to like skip into, I have a very defined-

Dillon Honcoop:
They have a stance but they don’t have a-

Bridget Coon:
… preference over what type of beef I have, but I don’t really understand that cattle that are fed grain in a feed yard, spent half their life on grass at a place like this.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was going to ask you about that back when we were talking about feeding cattle and we had Camas Uebelacker here on the podcast for two weeks. I forget the numbers of the episodes, but you can go back and check in the list if you want to, but that’s what he does is like you were describing. You have a cow calf operation, cattle literally out on the range. He takes them, finishes them as a custom operator, kind of specializes in what he does and then they go to harvest.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where they’re fed corn in a lot of cases. He talked a little bit about that. Lot of people say, “Oh, well, corn is bad. I want all grass fed.” You’re explaining already that’s more of a misnomer than maybe people realize, but explain more what’s going on with this whole grass fed versus grain fed.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. It’s just over simplified, and I think some of our more over-simplified messages about food for people who are. They are trying to be conscientious for whether it’s for their health or the environment or whatever it is they feel they care about. But at the end of the day, the actual knowledge of how to take a calf and get it up to a really palatable, really enjoyable beef product it’s not as simple as slapping a label on this was grass-finished or this was, usually it’s grass fed or grain fed, and then people assume that everything else is grain fed, which means they’re like force fed corn their whole lives or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is never the case.

Bridget Coon:
Which is not a thing. In fact, I was just looking at some stats the other day, and it’s the actual amount of corn in a cattle diet over the course of its life is way overstated or just sort of generalized as this really key element in it. When really they’re always fed some kind of roughage, some kind of hay is always in a ration. Chemist did a great job explaining what a cattle feed ration is, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Only those who heard from people who would say, well, cows aren’t designed to eat and digest corn.

Bridget Coon:
That’s not a thing. In fact, so most of the corn that they’re fed is, there’s dry steam flake corn. So that’s also already been processed, think of cornflakes like we eat or whatever. And then you have most of the corn they eat is like siloed and it’s chopped the entire plant. Corn is a type of grass technically. So to say that ruminate animals can’t digest and process and convert a crop like corn into beef efficiently is just scientifically false. It’s nothing.

Dillon Honcoop:
People also say aside from the sustainability conversation, environmental concerns, et cetera, et cetera. They say that grass fed beef has, what is it? Like more omega three fatty acids or something like that? Correct me if I’m wrong on the specifics there.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. The fatty acid ratio.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Is the beef actually different. I mean, I have a cousin and her husband, they’re both nutritionists and I talked with them about it and they’re like yeah, omega threes are super trendy right now, but you don’t need too many of those, and omega six is kind of like, whoa, it’s bad. It’s from corn, but you don’t need too many of those, but you can’t live without any, like it’s way more complicated once they started explaining it.

Bridget Coon:
Right. So to simplify it, but not oversimplify it, the fatty acid ratio. So it’s that six to three ratio is what is usually referred to, is so slightly different between grain finished and grass finished beef. It’s marginal first of all. Again, the intermuscular fat that we’re talking about actually has a similar fatty acid profile too, like olive oil, which would be considered like a healthy fat, which is some people don’t really realize.

Dillon Honcoop:
I did not know that.

Bridget Coon:
But then further, because I feel like now I’ve gone down this rabbit trail, but it needs to be addressed that the beef people are never going to say like, get your omegas from beef because it’s not … beef is essential, I mean, it has essential nutrients and it’s a great source for several proteins, zinc, iron are the top three, right? But there’s actually quite a few, the omegas aren’t in there. Go eat salmon, go get a copper river salmon. Use an actual significant source to get your omegas.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s interesting you said copper river salmon. I have a good friend who’s a lifetime fisherman. He’s like a whole copper river thing. That’s just-

Bridget Coon:
Marketing, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s all marketing.

Bridget Coon:
That’s genius marketing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which we’re saying about … you’re talking about beef and I could tell you marketing things about other crops and stuff that what is really underneath it, and when you talk to the farmer, they’re like yeah, you get a whole different story. That’s why I’m doing this podcast to talk to the farmers rather than the marketing people.

Bridget Coon:
It’s to the point where you just, I literally assume when I’m seeing or reading something about an industry that I’m unfamiliar with and it feels simplified or oversimplified. I’m just like, yeah. If I want to know more about this, I need to go read some more because I have a feeling that this is meant to sell me something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That’s our generation now too, right?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, just being skeptical or just being marketed to by people who try to make you dumber.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, both.

Bridget Coon:
I do. I think of … So I do fill some marketing roles in my work and I kind of keep that mantra of, I don’t want to make people dumber. Like if I do anything with this work it’s to shed some light on areas of the process of getting food to people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are you telling me you do marketing yet you still have a soul?

Bridget Coon:
I am a soulful marketer.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, that’s good.

Bridget Coon:
I started, I mean, I really started out my career more in advocacy and more like, I’m just more of a … I was like a nerdy kid that listened to … I grew up on the west side [case 00:34:00], but we had a feed yard and a family ranch. Right? Actually, we raised hay. I think my first job in life was to sell sweet corn that we grew, pick it and sell it on the roadside.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was this?

Bridget Coon:
In the Green River Valley, Auburn and Kent. So my grandparents and my parents and my brother and I, kind of all worked together since I was a little kid. And so that’s a really urban market even back in the 90s. So it’s kind of second nature to me to be communicating to people who don’t have a firsthand understanding of like farming and ranching because I was doing it since birth. But it makes me want to help people understand. And yeah, just I’ve been attracted and had the opportunity to do work that’s allowed me to continue that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how did you end up here in Eastern Washington and on a cow calf operation, but also doing digital marketing work and all kinds of stuff online and like what was the road from there to here?

Bridget Coon:
Winding?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
Windy. Yeah, so I grew up on a farm and feed yard, family operation on the west side. I was probably influenced by obviously at that time Ag wasn’t like a growing industry over there. Again, the dinner table conversations and just sort of the activity around the farm. I was really aware of like regulatory framework that was growing, whether it was water issues or endangered species act issues, whatever it was. Seattle area is like the epicenter. I feel like everything else, as far as like our environmental culture right now, it’s just catching up to like kind of where things were a decade or two ago in the Seattle area as culturally, right?

Bridget Coon:
So I paid attention to that as a little kid, I ended up at WSU, Go COUGS. And I had been really encouraged in writing, and so based on sort of not knowing if I had this role in production agriculture going forward and being kind of encouraged in other ways, I ended up with a policy pre-law degree because I thought maybe I could be an attorney and like go fight the good fight for farmers or something, right? I wasn’t sure where it would go. And then I did some campaign work and some like rabble rouse, like conservative or Republican rabble-rousing on campus.

Bridget Coon:
And anyway, campaign jobs that beget appointment in the Bush Administration. So I went from Pullman, basically straight from Pullman to DC as a young 20 something. And so I got to spend a few years out back East where you can get a lot of experience in a short amount of time.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of stuff were you doing back East?

Bridget Coon:
So my first job back there was … I didn’t even know when I started volunteering for campaigns and then getting like staff campaign jobs. I got to run around Eastern Washington, which was really cool, that was my territory, and so I love it. I already knew I loved it out here. But I didn’t even know there was like low level appointments that you could get from supporting the president, in this case is president Bush’s re-election in 2004. And so other people I worked with were like, give us your resume.

Bridget Coon:
And so I started out at the most boring federal agency. I don’t know if you can guess which one, the GSA, the General Services Administration, we buy pencils and bombs. I worked for the Chief of Staff there and government procurement was like not like my thing. So actually my boss out here in the campaign had ended up landing a job in the Political Affairs Office, they kind of staff up during the cycle. So during the 2006 cycle, I was his what they call desk coordinator where I just wrote briefing papers, for any time like the president or vice president or first lady, whoever was traveling, we’d have to sort of update these briefing documents that they would presumably read on their way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were writing stuff that the president was reading.

Bridget Coon:
So I wouldn’t go that far because I was never on like Air Force One to confirm that. My boss was and so sometimes he’d have some stories to come back to you, but I will say I had a weird experience where I was in my office there, it’s in the Eisenhower, the EOB building next door to the West Wing. And I’m there like doing my thing at my desk and the TV was on and it was a live feed of I think it was a rally in Montana and that was in my territory that I had to cover for my work and the president’s giving his remarks.

Bridget Coon:
And I’m like, man, that sounds familiar. And I still had like the document because the speech writers, they didn’t always ask us, but sometimes they’d ask us for bullet points to incorporate. And so I was feeling pretty high on life to hear the president-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your briefing document probably made it to the speech writer who worked some of your words.

Bridget Coon:
No, we actually did talking point sometimes. So these were actually talking points that the speech writers asked for, in addition to our typical briefing papers. I do know that Karl Rove actually read them because one time this is where I also almost died and fell over on the floor because there was like a weird anomaly in one of the Montana counties and Karl’s going through this briefing paper and we put historical election results in it and he thought it was wrong because it was like a weird flip on like whatever the congressional district results was.

Bridget Coon:
And so my boss is calling me because he’s traveling with Karl Rove, they’ve just flew commercial and stuff like he wasn’t on Air Force One or anything, but he’s calling me from the road being like, “You need to look at these numbers and check them.” I was like, “Oh my God, did I just get that wrong?” Freaking out, and then luckily it was correct. But that was like weird. I mean, it’s just like I found myself in some weird spaces. And again, just getting this great experience to then I would say like some of the stuff I did out there was pretty intense.

Bridget Coon:
And again, like if people like that are reading something you’re writing it needs to be accurate. It needs to be a certain degree of it’s going to be out in public. It’s made other things that I’ve done that maybe are a little bit stressful or pressure full, is that a word?

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s a good word. I’ll keep that one if that’s okay.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not as … Not that many things seem that hard after that. Fast forward and I’m trying to like work with kids and also now being a homeschool mom, like I am humbled. I don’t care what I’ve done in the past. I am supremely humbled by trying to manage this household and everything we do at the ranch and my business and stuff, but it’s been weird I must say.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. To continue on this road though, to back up a little bit, like I know from hearing from a lot of people like, oh, the holy grail is to make it back to DC for a lot of different things that people do. And then once people are out there, they’re like, ah, I hate this city. I hate how everything works in this town and how people are so fake and yada, yada, I just want to get back home. And so how did you extricate yourself from that world and end up back here?

Bridget Coon:
I went out without an exit plan. I really wasn’t sure, I was 22, maybe when I landed out there and I have a little bit different perspective. I probably didn’t stay up there long enough to be completely jaded, maybe that’s part of it, but I really do. I think I met and worked with some of the best people that you’ll ever meet and some of the worst people, that’s universal. I feel like, so it’s not like the people are worse, I guess I’ll put it this way. I can’t be that jaded because I got my hands on some like cool stuff.

Bridget Coon:
As a very young person with just really like the best intentions to just … I’m not going to sit back and complain about things, I’m going to get in there and kind of put my energy in places. So I feel like I thrived pretty well. I sold my pickup and like flew out there with a couple of suitcases. I mean, I really, I kind of just whole sale, I lived on Capitol Hill. After that stint in 2006 at the White House, I ended up getting a job at a firm that is based in Bellevue Washington Advocates is what it’s still called. The principal’s there worked for Slade Gorton, Senator Slade Gorton. So they were awesome people to work with.

Bridget Coon:
And then that set of clients that we did public affairs work, basically were lobbyists. But we worked with dirt and water clients. So I started at that point, I started kind of like finding my way back home to agriculture, at least working on agriculture issues. They represented the PDs that run our hydropower dams, Chelan County, PUD, those kind of things I got sort of getting sharp on those types of issues that are really important here in Washington where [houser 00:43:05] at the time there was a big conflict with the tribes and the shellfish growers and so shellfish growers are farmers. I don’t think I’ve probably ever really thought about it like that when I was younger, but I was like, man, these are farmers and they have all these like similar issues, but it’s shellfish.

Bridget Coon:
And so I got to work on cool projects that directly related back to agriculture and the Pacific Northwest based on the people that this company worked for. And then I kind of got poached from there back to Dino Rossi’s gubernatorial campaign in 2008, and that’s how I ended up back in Washington. Not sure if I would stay after doing a eight month campaign stint, but I got a master’s degree in there somewhere. I don’t like-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been busy.

Bridget Coon:
I don’t know. Like I wasn’t as tired as I am now. Is that weird? I feel like, maybe I guess-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know the feeling. I totally know the feeling.

Bridget Coon:
You know it, you get it. I packed a lot in during that sort of like time in my 20s and ended up back in Washington. And then after that campaign, we lost, this happens and you need a new job or even when you win you need a new job. So from there I ended up working for Reagan Dunn on the King County council. So I worked at downtown Seattle in the courthouse and I did agriculture land use and communications for him. So I started finding my way into this sort of like jobs I didn’t know existed when I was even in college and this direction that while I had sort of just been taking great opportunities that presented themselves to me through networking and just where I was being led.

Bridget Coon:
I did stop at one point, I was like, oh, I guess I am doing what I really probably, as a young person thought I could be useful doing. And then my parents were still farming in that area. So I would just on the weekends I was at their place, but yeah, I was probably … figured out that I was like the only person on the 12th floor of the King County courthouse involved in policymaking for the council that had any agriculture background whatsoever. So I felt the need to like get in there and make sure that some of those interests were being represented. And then again, these issues that can be oversimplified walked back and explained.

Dillon Honcoop:
So then how did you end up in Eastern Washington, because we got you all the way to DC-

Bridget Coon:
We’re back.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and then all the way back to Seattle-

Bridget Coon:
We’re almost back. Sorry this is a long story. I know it’s a long story.

Dillon Honcoop:
And now we’ve got to get you … No, you said lots of twists and turns, so I wanted to hear them.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, it’s interesting. And so it’s like I find it interesting when I stopped. I don’t often stop and think about it. Nobody has time for that, but after working for Reagan, Patty over at the Beef Commission dialed me up and she was looking for someone in like in consumer information space that at that time the Beef Commission board had said, “Hey, we want to really invest in telling the production side.” Like they’re seeing that people have more interest in how food’s raised, but like the knowledge gap is really vast. And then we’re getting all these sort of negative myths developing around how we raise cattle.

Bridget Coon:
And so that’s why I was attracted to it. I mean, I like cooking beef. Like I love eating and cooking beef. But I wasn’t attracted to the job to like teach people how to make chili with five ingredients or I mean, I do, I will say like, searing, I love smoking my trigger. I mean, there’s some cool stuff to do with meat, it’s one of my hobbies, but I really was like, this is an opportunity to take things like so full circle back to the industry that I grew up in and do that communications work that clearly needed to be done and still needs to be done today. And so that was like 2010, and I just sort of right after I started that job coincidentally that my now husband, he is a rancher.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was he already doing that at that time?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. So his dad … how did this work? So it’s like literally the second or third day on the job was like the Washington Cattleman’s convention. It was over in Sancadia. And it’s one of those instances where you’re the new person and everyone meets you, but you don’t necessarily meet everyone. And I had some interaction with Dick Coon, my now father-in-law because one of my first projects that first week was reviewing some ad, some radio ads that he had voiced.

Bridget Coon:
And then also there was some copy and they’ve spelled Benge where we are now, they spelled it wrong. And I knew that because I’d been traveling 26 past the sign to Benge, to WSU, to Pullman all those years before.

Dillon Honcoop:
And now you live in Benge.

Bridget Coon:
And here I am. But anyway, so I’d had just light interaction with Dick and I didn’t know what was going on yet. I was just trying to get with my job. I mean, that’s the zone I’d been in at that point since college and so … I don’t know if I should go into this, you can cut it out, but it’s kind of funny.

Dillon Honcoop:
This means it’s about to be the best part of the interview when people say that, you know something good is coming, so you must carry on that.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s funny, it’s a little funny. This is kind of hilarious and I still find it a little bit hilarious. So my now family, my in-laws were all there at the convention. And my now brother-in-law, my now husband was on the way and he was just joining everyone. And apparently my now brother-in-law kind of like saw me in the hallway and didn’t know anything about me yet, right? But he’s texting him, like you need to get here and you need to like, maybe meet this person, you know like.

Bridget Coon:
So this is all happening, I have no idea this is happening. He gets there. So the Beef Commission meeting is going on. This is my first board meeting. And I’m like pretty like trying to figure out what I’m doing here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Zoned in on the work.

Bridget Coon:
Zoned in, and these two dudes come in to the meeting and I remember Patty leaning over to me and saying, “Who are those guys?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I just started,” because she likes to know who’s in the meetings. So I had no idea, never met him and then fast forward to January. So it was November, January, a few months later. There’s a program up that WSU did and it was for everyone from a rancher, to a feed yard employee, to a packer. It’s like this cool course about beef, everything from like genetics and like range management to, we made sausage and we looked at grading the rib-eyes that the grade that they come in with. It’s a-

Dillon Honcoop:
A beef boot camp.

Bridget Coon:
Beef boot camp, but that’s not what they called it but they should have. Anyway, so last minute-

Dillon Honcoop:
I didn’t even plan on the alliteration for that.

Bridget Coon:
So much alliteration, so good.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s awesome.

Bridget Coon:
So anyway, my father-in-law and my now husband kind of last minute decided because there were like an hour from Pullman here, decided to join as attendees, and then the Beef Commission is sponsored to a degree. And so I was kind of sent over to write it up and do some promotion after the fact. And so you’re so really new and I’m like, everyone’s just so nice, but really like he was talking me up, he was chatting me up the whole two or three days as this thing was going on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait a second. So he just happened to decide to go to this beef boot camp.

Bridget Coon:
I didn’t even know I was going until like a few days before, because we weren’t … it was kind of not essential.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, he wasn’t-

Bridget Coon:
So that part, there was no stocking.

Dillon Honcoop:
… working his angles here.

Bridget Coon:
There was like no stocking, it was actually completely … So it’s funny, is like he didn’t shoot his shot in November and I didn’t know he existed. And then in January here we are again and these circles are small in an industry like ours. So not to say that it’s completely out of the blue, but it was not, it was just sort of a coincidence. And he, yeah like by the end of the week, he’s like, “Hey, can I call you sometime or maybe come visit?” Because I lived on the west side, I lived in Auburn and so anyway, I finally let him come visit me like in February, and then he-

Dillon Honcoop:
You say that, so you let him come-

Bridget Coon:
I was in the career zone, man. I was not thinking about this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody talks about friend zone, but is this a step even farther than friend zone?

Bridget Coon:
No, no. There was a lot of text messages. Like if you were to-

Dillon Honcoop:
You career zoned him.

Bridget Coon:
Well, I didn’t obviously. This is why, so then things got real. Things got real so fast. Anyway, so finally I think he came over for like Super Bowl weekend or something and I made him go to a hockey game with like 20 of my friends and family because I’m like that person, the facilitator of fun, like in the family, like that’s kind of my role. And so I was like, “Let’s go to a hockey game, but let’s get a group rate and like get tee shirts or whatever.” So I put them through the paces. We like had to go stop at the beauty shop and like meet my grandma. And like, it was a whole thing, but he was undeterred. And so that was like the beginning of February. He proposed on mother’s day that year, so that’s how I can remember it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holy smokes.

Bridget Coon:
So that was May, and then we’re just kind of going with it. We’re just like sending it, is the only way I can describe it. And so that was May-

Dillon Honcoop:
This whole thing was moving along rather slowly until you suddenly said, you first actually really hung out in February or like dated, whatever you want to call it, and you were engaged to him by mother’s day.

Bridget Coon:
He was highly intentional.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess.

Bridget Coon:
Which I hear is not really a quality of millennials dudes these days, but he was all on board, and so we’re engaged in May and then we got married October 1st.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bridget Coon:
So I actually didn’t know what would become of like my job and which is not the greatest feeling to me because I really care about this type of work and it was really things are going in this direction. And so it was really Patty, my boss that got creative and I had been doing a lot, obviously a lot more of our work is done online. You can do it from anywhere. And so we were able to sort of do a lot of different gyrations with that job that allowed me to stay doing it to a degree. Like I said, I was pregnant 2.6 seconds after we got married. In fact, I didn’t even live here yet.

Bridget Coon:
So essentially we got married October 1st. December 1st was when I moved here and even then I had some events swing that week. And in between that time it was like Thanksgiving. And I was like, okay, I think something’s up, and he like came over for Thanksgiving. And so we had to tell my grandma, like we said, I think we announced it. Like we were thankful. You’re going around and like, what you’re thankful for. And I said, “We’re thankful for fertility.” And my grandmother whose like 90 years old at the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
She cleared in right away?

Bridget Coon:
I mean, her eyes got so big. It’s just like one of those best moments. But she’s passed now and so I just have some of these great moments to be … she was involved in and got to hold our son. But we got to do this sort of announcement on Thanksgiving.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s so awesome.

Bridget Coon:
But I thought it would be a long winter at least on the ranch. So it was really like, oh, I should probably like get doctors, and it was this-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

Bridget Coon:
So life has been pretty fast paced.

Dillon Honcoop:
In less than a year’s time, that was a lot of stuff.

Bridget Coon:
That’s a lot, but I kind of, change has never really bothered me. And I kind of always wondered where I would land in life probably because of that, because I was never like, I want to be an accountant and I will do this. And I tried to be really open minded about having like a suburban life or an urban life, and it’s just none of that ever took. So in some cases it seems like kind of crazy to be out here, but really to me it like feels right. Living next door to family, we had that type of setup growing up.

Bridget Coon:
And so to have my kids see their grandparents, their great grandmother lives next door here. We were just planting vegetables and seeds in the garden the other day. And so I go from like, “Hey, I need to focus on explaining to people why our processing plants are slowed down,” and there’s like space in the meat case, in a situation like this and work on those tougher issues. And then I’m like, “Let’s go plant some vegetables in the garden with Nana,” because I mean, we need to do these things and we have this ability to do it here.

Bridget Coon:
So I really couldn’t be more thrilled at how things kind of have shaken out. And my husband and I have these conversations sometimes. Even like after really hard days, which are just sucky days where things just go wrong and they can go wrong with your kids. They can go wrong with my work. They can go wrong with the ranch. And like some days can be pretty rough. And it’s not enough just like scenic out here well, but like there’s been more than a few times where we’ve stopped and been like, “Yeah, I don’t really care. I feel like this is where I would want to be.” And so you can’t really deny that feeling. And so I’ve kind of just started going with it, several years ago and it’s only grown it hasn’t sort of … so luckily like really short term decisions have worked out.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the part where I say, but wait, there’s more, that’s just part one of the conversation. And she shares so much more of her story and insight into food and farming and ranching and what’s going on in the world. Bridget Coon part two is next week, so make sure to stay tuned for that, make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it. People keep asking me, “Where can we find your podcasts?” Pretty much on any of the podcasts platforms out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I have been mentioning to people and I’ll say this to you as well, if there is a platform that I’m not on that you think I should be, send me a message dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address, right to my phone. I’ll see it right away and I’ll figure out if there’s any way to get on that platform, we’ll do it. Also, @rfrp_podcast on Instagram and Real Food Real People podcast on Facebook. Don’t forget to follow us there. What is it? @rfrp_podcast as well on Twitter. So make sure to connect with us there and continue to follow along as I travel all over Washington State to meet and really get to know the people behind our food.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org. And by dairy farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Derek Friehe | #028 06/22/2020

Just because a farm is big doesn't necessarily mean it's not a family farm. Derek Friehe shares the story of his family's roots, and his unconventional path back to farming.

Transcript

Derek Friehe:
I’m gonna go through some of those bad years. I’m not just… It’s my land, it’s where I grew up, it’s many cases, my parents or grandparents are buried here, it’s where I want to raise my kids. It’s more… Yeah, it’s not just a job.

Announcer:
This is The Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Every time I interview a person behind our food here in Washington State, there’s some new cool twist. This week certainly isn’t any different with Derek Friehe and his family’s roots in Europe, and how that came to Washington State, his background in the corporate world and coming back to the farm. He’s got a lot to share. We get into also what’s happening right now with COVID and how it’s affected potato… Washington State here is one of the biggest potato-growing regions in the country, and they’ve been very hard hit by all the market disruptions and things that happen with potatoes and people not going to restaurants anymore and buying French fries. That’s actually been a huge thing for folks. So, he shares all of it, lots of story to get to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for joining us this week. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this podcast, The Real Food Real People podcast, is documenting my journey all over Washington. This time we go to Moses Lake, and we hear again from Derek Friehe of Friehe Farms, a big farm but still with family roots and it’s all about the family still as large as they’ve gotten in, and that’s a really cool part of this too. So often, farms are judged by how big or small they are, and I think that’s the wrong criteria to use because there are big farms that are great. It’s not about the size of the farm and you’ll hear that in Derek’s attitude and just his whole outlook on why he does what he does in growing food. Join with me in getting to know Derek Friehe of Friehe Farms in Moses Lake, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been doing the farming thing your whole life. You’re multiple generations into this, right?

Derek Friehe:
Second generation.

Dillon Honcoop:
Second?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, so I’ve been back on the farm five years. I mean, I grew up on the farm and then has gone for like eight years down in California. I went to school down there. Yeah, second-generation farmer. My dad actually emigrated from Germany over 30 or 35 years ago and kind of settled. He married my mom who’s American. She is from Seattle and so he kind of discovered the Northwest and sold the little farm over there and started here and it was bad time to be farming, good time to have opportunities to buy land, and so he just started small and found this area just at east of Moses Lake that was started developing. And yeah, it’s grown quite a bit since he took it over 35 years ago. My brother and I are then back five to six years now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you and your brother are in the farming operation now, but had both left the farm?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We actually went to the same school down in California, and we weren’t studying ag so it’s weird. My dad was trying to figure out what to do with the farm, how to transition out of it himself while hoping to get some family back, but at the time we weren’t studying ag. We both studied business, which proved to be really helpful, but still-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

Derek Friehe:
… it’s definitely… I mean, you got to know your stuff, like agronomy-wise, if you want to be successful, so that’s been the steepest learning curve. I enjoy the business side and that’s kind of both. But yeah, farming is just a lot of experience. Just year over year knowledge gain, but yeah, it’s nice to have some of the theory behind it and I’ve got supplemented with ag classes here and there, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, do you wish that you would have gone to school for-

Derek Friehe:
I don’t know-

Dillon Honcoop:
… real agronomy or farming or something-

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in agriculture?

Derek Friehe:
In some ways, yeah. I wish I would have, but then that’s a counterfactual. You go back and what if… I met my wife there, some of my best friends, awesome experiences shaped who I am now and so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So what-

Derek Friehe:
… education standpoint, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what was your plan at that point? Like what were you wanting to do?

Derek Friehe:
I didn’t know. I was two years undecided down there, trying to figure it out. I mean, yeah, farming… You’ve heard it before. It’s always like in the back of your mind. If you’ve grown up on it, it’s kind of in your blood. So, even you, you didn’t go back to the farm but you’re still involved in Ag.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Derek Friehe:
Always in the back of my mind. Even going in business is still in the back of my mind like, “Oh, at least the farm’s a business,” and even after post college I’m going into like food-type businesses. Even if those were corporate, but it’s still the food direction with maybe the idea of going back one day and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you knew about that stuff, right?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you were a kid, what was your dad doing farming-wise? How big was the farm? What was he farming at that point?

Derek Friehe:
Every year it seemed like he was growing… I mean, potato is kind of the mainstay of the farm. That’s where a lot of the growth came from. He didn’t farm any potatoes in Germany, so he worked for a farm west of town for years, just kind of learning the ropes of this area, and then he bought one field and then another field. Then, at some point, I think he rented out his ground and somebody else farmed potatoes on his ground and he was just, I think, standing by the side of the field one day and was like, “I could do that. It’s ridiculous. Somebody coming into my field and growing a beautiful spud crop.” Again, a lot of the principles in ag are the same. Potato is a whole different level than like wheat, for example. Now, he’s a good farmer. He had educational background from Germany, and he was good at what he did.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that family history is fascinating. You said he did farm in Germany as well?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, he did. If you’ve ever been over there, all the land is farmed. There’s not a lot of new development. It’s generations of farms that had been kind of held together and there’re all small and kind of broken up. There’s not a lot of big farms. There’s not a lot of opportunity for him, and he was very entrepreneurial, risk taker. There wasn’t that there any room to grow. In those times, it was an okay farm. But for our standards, it was like one field’s worth. It was like 130 acres and that was big over there. So, I think being exposed here and marrying my mom, coming over here, he was like, “Dang, there’s a lot of room to grow here.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
Like I said, the farming wasn’t great. Wheat prices are like two bucks. It was time to get in, even though you weren’t making a ton of money, people are going broke, and so it was a combination of good timing, luck, skill, being an opportunist and risk taker.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did he meet… You said your mom’s from Seattle, how did he meet her? How did that all go down?

Derek Friehe:
She was an exchange student so she was over there, actually in a village like 20 minutes away from where he grew up. I don’t actually think they met there. I think they met in Vienna, somehow randomly. That’s where they met, connected there and then, I think after that they were like, “Oh well.” I don’t know if they ever made the connection that she was staying like… They must have made some kind of connection because when they went back, that’s when they hit it off and had a longer engagement back and forth, and eventually came back here and got married. Actually, my older sister was born over there and then a few months after she was born, they came back, settled here permanently.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you speak German?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, man, I used to be pretty good at it. No, I should’ve taken Spanish.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
No, I went to language school over there for a bit. We were always going over there pretty much every other year or so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Quite a bit of family back in Germany still-

Derek Friehe:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… that you’re connected with?

Derek Friehe:
It was mostly my grandma lived over there. He only had one sister. They only had one kid, not a huge extended family. Just when my grandma was still alive we’d go back over there. But yeah, not as much anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grow up around him, starting to grow this farm. He’s an outside-the-box thinker trying to do something different, bigger, better, and it was all potatoes when you were a kid, or was he already branching out into other stuff too? Because you, guys, do all kinds of stuff.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. And potatoes, especially if you’re on the ground, you got to rotate it so you’re doing potatoes, let’s say, every four years so you’re doing other crops in between.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Derek Friehe:
That’s just the big one that takes most the financial risk and time, money, people. He was doing wheat, corn, things to rotate around now. But yeah, now we’ve delved into organics, a lot of forage crops. Yeah, probably 15 different crops that we do. Most of it, again, is potatoes. So, it’s all kind of rotating around that for the most part.

Dillon Honcoop:
Growing up here, what was it like moving down to basically LA where your school was?

Derek Friehe:
It was a big change, but that’s part of the allure of growing up in a small town and wanting to figure things out and see the big city. I don’t know. I was into sports like high school or so. I got to play soccer down there and, I don’t know, I had the beach and tons of people and they’re just different. My sister had gone there, so I was exposed to it and knew what to expect. It was a good school and, again, I didn’t know I want to be a farmer, so I wasn’t like, “Oh, am I go to WSU or something?”

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it was good. The biggest change probably happened when we had our first kid, so that was kind of the game changer. I loved my job, I liked being down there, a lot of friends, community, but then you have a kid there. Except this tiny little house that’s way overpriced, commuting an hour and a half every day to work, and it just hits you like, “What am I doing here? I don’t want to raise a family here.” It takes, I think, a little bit for some people to go out and experience that before for coming back, so definitely I appreciate a lot more. You have a different boss, you work for a different company, you get a… I don’t know, you learn a lot as opposed to just coming straight back. So, definitely I appreciate it a lot more.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like making that decision? Like, “Okay, we’re going to pack up, we’re going to move back to the farm”?

Derek Friehe:
My brother actually moved back a year before, so he was kind of the test case, like he’s moving back. We kind of keep an eye on how he’s doing, how he’s liking it, and so that definitely helped because it’s definitely a big move. But again, after having a kid and more kids, you want to be close to family, you want to be close to grandparents and have the free babysitting and the community support, and you start thinking long term and made sense from a… and just way of life. I love working outside in my hands, but then you get the challenges of the business side, I can kind of bring my business experience to it, too. So, yeah, it was a little bit of a leap of faith, but also it’s home, it’s not crazy. A lot of people move all over the country into new places, and this wasn’t a new place, it was familiar, so it wasn’t hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
How was it for your dad? I mean, when you tell him, “Hey, yeah, I want to come back to the farm.” Was he pumped about that? Was he like, “Wow, you got to kind of prove yourself”? I know that’s how my dad would be.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. He’s pumped in his own way, he’s German, he’s stoic, he’s… He was pretty excited. You could tell you he was pretty happy. He worked so hard to build this up, and I could see you get up in age and you’re thinking about legacy and what am I passing on and built it up for what? He was wanting to retire and he’d gotten into flying, and so he was doing a lot of that. He was looking for definitely the next generation to step up. Actually, all four of us kids had at some point been all over the country and then we all came back.

Derek Friehe:
Right now, all of us are either in town or my sister is an hour away, but she was an accountant. She was a CPA down in LA, and then eventually came back to the farm for a year before getting married so she was in accounting so she’s in the farm and then… So yeah, everybody’s away and then within two years, everybody’s back. I think they are pretty happy about that. Of course, all the grandkids come and we’re the first one to have a kid and within… Well, he’s now 7 and now there’s 14 grandkids so just…

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, there’s something I love is just because you come back to a small town and get the family element, you got the support structure and let’s have kids and go down to the city and one, two kids, maybe per family. [crosstalk 00:13:19].

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

Derek Friehe:
It’s definitely easier to have bigger families and get that support.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many kids do you have?

Derek Friehe:
I got four.

Dillon Honcoop:
Four kids.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Sister has five, brother has three, youngest sister has two.

Dillon Honcoop:
It just sounds tiring to have that many children running around.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I have two but-

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. No, it’s… I mean, I tell my wife, she works way harder than I do. I can do it, so it’s up to her if we have any more because she’s the one putting in the long days and I come home, I get to play with them, and she’s the one dealing with all the fights and, yeah, pretty amazing what mothers, stay-at-home mothers, they work hard but it’s fun. I love being a dad. I can’t imagine life without them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to you come back to the farm, what does your dad have you do right away? Because on one hand, it’s like, “Well, you’re new here,” but on the other hand, you’re coming in with a business degree and business experience. Did he throw you in a tractor or did he say, “Get in the office and you’re now going to be dealing with our business dealings,” and things like that?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. I think a little bit of both. I think, yeah, it’s hard because at least I was used to that corporate-type life, making big decisions or at least being part of them and then start on the bottom a little bit. I did a little bit of tractor work. I did most tractor in high school and harvest and all that, so I had some experience there. But yeah, definitely kind of grunt doing stuff that like we have high schoolers doing now or interns. So, you do all that first couple of years and get your feet wet there.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it was frustrating, it’s like, “Ah, I should be doing a lot more,” but it’s also laying the foundation and learning a little bit of everything. It’s that tension of, “Yeah, I want to move up quick.” But you can only move up having that ground layer of experience, doing everything, so yeah. It’s also a big farm now, so it’s not like I’m coming back and having to do everything. We have awesome tractor drivers, that’s all they do. They sit on the tractor all day and they’re really good at it. And for me to come, they don’t necessarily need me to come in and do it, as opposed to just a father-son operation where you’re coming in like, “No, sorry, you’re doing everything.” I feel like I still have ton to learn. I’m already six years into this and in some ways, I’m still scratching the surface on a lot of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Interesting. You come from the corporate world. A lot of people say that family farming doesn’t really exist. They’re all big corporate farms. Having come from the corporate world, what’s your reaction to that? Now being in this operation, it’s big. You, guys, farm a lot of acres, got a lot of employees but is it the same as like working for a corporation?

Derek Friehe:
No, not at all. No. Just even you’re stuck in an office all day, you’re all dressed up. It’s meeting after meeting and you’re sitting in front of a computer doing Excel spreadsheets. There’s still a little bit of that here, but it’s not the same at all, especially for a big farm, it feels like a family operation. We got good farm managers and hopefully some amount of organizational structure, but it’s not the same deal. We’re big, we got 50 full-time employees, but I think in the corporate world, that’s pretty small from most of those big corporations.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many acres do you farm between all the different crops you, guys, have?

Derek Friehe:
Probably around 10,000.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people can’t… Even for me coming from Western Washington farming, which is so much smaller. It’s more the size of what you’re talking about your dad doing in Germany, right? That’s hard for me to fathom, but then for you to explain, “No, it’s still like a family. It’s run by the family.” Yeah, you have 50 employees but compared to a big corporation, like you say, that’s nothing.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the ethos of the company? Like when I came in here, I’m seeing signs all over, with COVID going on and thanks for what you do, essential farm employees, seems to be a really upbeat positive kind of vibe you, guys, have here.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I’d like to think so. Hopefully, it starts with leadership and there’s good leaders kind of setting the tone. Farmers by nature have to be optimist, I think, just to keep coming back year after year, so there’s definitely a positive energy, I think, most the time and I think all the COVID stuff. In some ways it’s helped, I think, with the perception of farmers. I think if people went to the grocery store and then all of a sudden, they’re not seeing food on the shelves, I think they start to, it’s just never happened before. I think most people think food grows in the groceries. I don’t know where they think their food comes from. But as soon as it’s not there then they start to wonder like, “Oh, food’s a big deal,” and then you trace it back to who’s growing it and where it’s coming from and, I think, hopefully there’s more of an appreciation for who grows it, supply chains and distribution centers that can get it to you. But yeah, it’s definitely essential. It’s definitely affected our industry for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But no, I think our folks had done a good job of trying to be safe and be smart about how we’re within six feet of each other and doing something trying to, I don’t know if you saw the guy when he first came in, he was cleaning doorknobs and just trying to keep things clean and in my mind, just common sense stuff that maybe we should probably do normally, but it’s only COVID stuff. For us, it was nice because we weren’t all that affected like we got plenty of people that are out of work and sitting at home and… We’re busy, and I don’t really feel the effects too much, which is nice.

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus, you have space. You don’t all have to be crowded together in an office most of the time.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Farming by nature is socially distant, which I prefer.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ve been hearing a lot though about how brutal COVID has been for a lot of different farm markets, meat, dairy, milk being dumped, and then also potatoes and especially here in Washington State, other places too. But I know here in Washington State, we heard stories of potatoes with nowhere to go. How’s that hit you, guys?

Derek Friehe:
It’s definitely affected us on kind of two fronts. It kind of hit during planting which is, we’re northern basin so we’re a little later planting. When we get the news, we hadn’t even started planting yet, so we are able to… I mean, you still have a quarter to a third of your cost in the field already before you even plant the seed. So, we did get cut some of our acres and the processors said, “Hey, you got to cut, let’s say, 10% of your acres.” And so we got to go out and try to find stuff that’s what can we cut that doesn’t have too much money into it. Those are real dollars that have been spent that have basically gone away. But luckily, we had some landlords that were gracious enough to either let us plant something else or just say, “Hey, you can come back next year and grow.”

Derek Friehe:
But yeah, I’ve heard numbers up to 50% on average some guys getting cut and some guys 100%. Some of those direct guys that go right from the field to the plant.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
So they cut the acreage for next year. So, this is 2020 crop but you still have 2019 crop in storage. We still have quite a bit from the fall in storage and so that was the other concern, we’ve heard guys that got basically left… I mean, their potatoes got left in storage, saying, “Hey, we don’t want these anymore. Figure out what to do with them.” That had me more concerned because when you don’t plant them, okay, you eat some of the cost but stuff that’s in storage, those are all full-cost potatoes, right? They’re sitting and if they don’t take those, you’re definitely in a world of hurt and our processors told us you’re just going to store them later. By the time we start harvest this fall, we might still have potatoes from last year in there.

Dillon Honcoop:
How long can you store potatoes and they’ll still be good?

Derek Friehe:
I think if you have a good storage and a good spud, you can go a year or more.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s amazing.

Derek Friehe:
We don’t typically do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the cool part about potatoes, right?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. In that way, yeah. We’re lucky. It’s not like the leafy greens, they’re the perishable, highly perishable stuff, mushroom.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, days if not hours sometimes to get things done with those things. If they’re cutting what they’re going to have you plant, say, now. Well, those are potatoes that will be eaten next year, right?

Derek Friehe:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And let’s hope that we aren’t having panic buying ups and downs and restaurants closed and all this disruption at this time next year. I guess how do you know how much less to plant now when in theory you should plant just as much as you have in the past for the next year?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We’re all contracting potatoes. We don’t really do anything on the open market. It’s the processor who we sell our potatoes to that dictates. They are the big companies, and they’re trying to do their best to forecast, “Hey, what it’s going to look like in a year from now? And what are French fries sales going to be?” They are the ones kind of, I mean… In my mind, they’re guessing, as much as we are, what it’s going to be and so I think they were trying to be conservative and they did not want to go along. That’s why there was definitely a drop off in demand. Obviously, restaurants close, not as many potatoes, French fries. I mean, do you cook French fries at home? It’s not many people do that so if you’re not going out, there’s definitely a demand loss there. But yeah, the big question is for next year. Did they screw themselves by shorting planting, and then all of a sudden, demand picks up and they have short product.

Derek Friehe:
That’s kind of my prediction because I feel like there’s a lot of overreactions happening with COVID and people want to return to normal, people want to go out and eat French fries and have a burger. My guess is they’re going to be short, which in some ways is good for us. We’ll see if it reflects in the price, usually it doesn’t, but it’s better than being long, I guess, for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
To answer your question, yes, I do sometimes make French fries at home.

Derek Friehe:
Nice.

Dillon Honcoop:
I found an old-fashioned, I think it was in an antique store, an old-fashioned potato fry cutter. It’s a little plunger thing, kind of those can crusher things, except it plunges the spud through like a waffle-shaped knife and yeah, it’s pretty awesome. I was thinking about that when this COVID thing was happening and I heard about the problems in the potato markets, it dawned on me. It was like, “Yeah, most people don’t make French fries at home, but they should because they’re awesome and it’s kind of a fun thing to do.”

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Of course, I’ve heard of air fryers and people have typically deep fryers in their house, but there’s different ways of doing it. But the fresh market definitely, people definitely stocked up on potatoes, it just wasn’t the French fried kind.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened to all those potatoes, and is happening I guess, that there’s still some left that there wasn’t a market for? What do you do in that situation? I know the Potato Commission was doing some pretty big events, even like at the Tacoma Dome, getting potatoes to people and stuff. There was some outside-the-box thinking going on, I know.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, but it’s still not making that much of a difference. I mean, I’ve heard numbers as much as a billion potatoes that they’re trying to get rid of and I think they’ve gotten rid of a few million, which sounds like… It is a lot, it’s just kind of a drop in the bucket compared to what they really need to get rid of. I don’t know what they’re going to do. I mean, worst case it goes to the cows but the cows could only eat so much potatoes, I suppose.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But then, I don’t know. It’s going to hurt a lot of guys.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Are there potato operations that will be forced out of business by this whole thing?

Derek Friehe:
I would imagine so. I don’t know. Guys have survived other stuff and hopefully their banks are lenient with them. I don’t know. I mean, we hate to rely on federal bailouts but, I don’t know, some of the federal relief programs haven’t really touched potatoes too much so they kind of need to get that sorted out and then figure out the guys that actually eat it and hopefully they can stay afloat. But yeah, I would imagine it’s going to hurt some guys.

Dillon Honcoop:
The potatoes you, guys, grow, what do they go to? Like French fries, food service kind of stuff, what else? I mean, are they used for [crosstalk 00:25:52]?

Derek Friehe:
I think pretty much all French fries and probably hash browns. So, the plant down the road is who we sell our potatoes to and that’s Simplot, and that’s primarily an export plant. Being in the northwest close to the port, biggest market being Japan and the East Asia, a lot of stuff gets exported that way. McDonald’s-type spec fry is what they’re going for.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean spec fry?

Derek Friehe:
Like the McDonald’s is the gold standard. They have really tight specs for… I mean they want every fry obviously [crosstalk 00:26:26] to look the same, so you need pretty high quality. It has to meet all the quality attributes for them to be able to ship it there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, let’s talk about market disruption and stuff with COVID challenges. It takes me back to your comment about farmers being optimists, and it also makes me think of your background in corporate business. Some of these risks and difficult situations that farmers end up in trying to grow food, would a corporation even make some of those moves that you see farmers saying, “No, we’re going to go forward even though we’ve lost money for a few years, but we think there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Derek Friehe:
That’s an interesting question because even corporation… I mean, there’s all sorts of ways to take risk. A lot of corporations, at least I kind of felt that way. I mean, a lot of times you’re not the one, let’s say, taking the risk. You got a good salary, sometimes you might have stock options, but you’re not necessarily the one, at least where I was at, I was kind of working for a big restaurant chain. It was the franchisees. It was the folks that are investing a bunch of money that were the ones risking a lot and potentially making a lot. I mean, the corporate, you’re more of a cog in the machine a little bit, you’re not as… I think, they’re a little more risk averse.

Derek Friehe:
When it comes to farming, I think there’s something about being tied to the land and that rootedness that gives you the ability to weather stuff or there’s a longevity to it that’s worth seeing through as opposed to something like, “Hey, I’m going to build this house or I’m going to spec it out and see if I can take a gamble. Well, if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to give the keys to the bank and move on to the next thing.” I mean, your land, your livelihood and maybe there’s generations, there’s history, there’s memories there, there’s something about that that I think, yeah, maybe it makes you take the long view in investing in it and saying, “I’m going to go through some of those bad years. It’s my land, it’s where I grew up, it’s many cases, my parents or grandparents are buried here, it’s where I want to raise my kids. It’s more…

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it’s not just a job that I want to risk my future. I mean, you have plenty places, people go out and risk and they have to declare bankruptcy and then move on to the next thing, not farmers as much. I don’t know the statistics on that, but that’s my general sense now that I’m out on the farm. You raise your kids here and it’s a way of life. It’s not just a passive investment that I’m just going to invest like stock market. I have skin on the game but it’s nothing to do with my day-to-day reality-

Dillon Honcoop:
Not your whole life.

Derek Friehe:
… family and tradition and [crosstalk 00:29:20] speculation-

Dillon Honcoop:
I often ask farmers because times can often be tough for farmers. It’s not huge margin stuff. It’s hard work. Then the question sometimes is, “Well, why do farmers keep doing it?” You’ll see these farmers take losses sometimes year after year. It’s like, “Why do you keep doing it?” But I think what you’re explaining there kind of gets at some of the answer, that there’s more to the equation than just the dollars.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. In any business, yeah, you have to make money to keep operating and you can only go so long with the equity of your land before it runs out if you’re not doing a good job or if the markets don’t allow you to succeed. But I think farmers, I think they love what they do, I think it’s not just business that I’ve invested in that can be here one day then gone the next. I mean, I think they love it, they’re passionate about it. It’s typically type of family and I think they like being on a tractor. I think they like touching the dirt, and it’s physical, it’s something you can stand on. And there’s something kind of romantic, fulfilling about like seeing something from start to finish like that where you’re kind of stewarding, kind of a co-operator with the land, with nature.

Derek Friehe:
There’s something kind of beautiful about even being dependent on weather and you definitely play a role, but you’re not in control. I mean, you do as much as you can do, but at some point like the others outside external things that dictate your future, but it’s fun. Come harvest time after a year of planning and trying to do everything right, and weather cooperates and you get to kind of see harvest, I mean, kind of standard cliché, like reap what you sow and you can see the fruits of your labor. I mean, it’s a cliché for a reason. There’s something, yeah, kind of romantic and beautiful about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the secret to growing awesome potatoes?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, what’s even just the process in a nutshell for people who don’t know how potatoes are grown? Like you plant them from basically pieces of potatoes.

Derek Friehe:
You plant them from… yeah. So, it’s pretty amazed when you get into the seed piece of it because I mean, that seed is a third generation seed. So it’s like three years ago, they started with a nuclear like kind of stem and then grew tiny seed from that and then another generation of seed from that. It’s a long process even just to get the seed and that’s a big deal, too because there are certain regions, Montana, someplace in Idaho, Canada that grow really good seed that aren’t infected, don’t have a lot of disease, so that’s a really big deal where you get your seed. And yeah, that’s the first big part of it is getting good seed, doing a good job planting. It’s a lot more complicated than just going down the road and getting some wheat seed or corn seed or something like that.

Derek Friehe:
So, you have to do a lot of research, you have to a lot more. I mean, and then you got to cut it. So, I mean, for four or five weeks we have a whole bay that’s like a little mini factory in there and that’s conveyors and belts and cutting equipment and people on the line cutting, taking bad seed out. I mean, it’s a whole process just to get the seed ready to put in the ground.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, they get the actual full sized seed potatoes and then cut them into pieces?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you can get multiple plants out of one potato that way?

Derek Friehe:
Right. Right. Your seed cost would be astronomical if you’re going big seed, so you’re going for about 2.5 ounces average, that’s what we go for anyway. But obviously, potatoes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so you’re trying to do your best to cut them down either once or twice to get them in that range.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the key is they need at least a couple of eyes on them because it’s those eyes on the potato.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. You want your eyes on there. If you don’t have eyes, you’re just planting some little piece of potato, that’s not going to do anything. But yeah, about two, two and a half ounces will get plenty of eyes and you’ll be good. So yeah, we plan April and pretty much the whole month and then it’s a long growing season. We’d start harvest September 15 usually and go for a solid month, so it’s one of our actually longer crops. And yeah, it just takes a lot of babies and I think it’s not necessarily a secret, but I think the key is you’re just always checking it. I mean, you just got to babysit.

Derek Friehe:
I have heard it said the most important thing you could put in the field, like the most important input is either your shadow or your boots, or I mean just being there. It’s not a special fertilizer, which you got to get all that stuff right, but you got to be in there. Moisture management’s huge, but yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you got to irrigate a lot to keep them going?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. It would take a lot of water. I mean, some people say 30 inches of water per year, which is on the higher end versus weed that do 17 inches and be fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s what you have those big circles for?

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
With overhead irrigation.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We only get like eight or nine inches of rain here, so we’re absolutely dependent on canal systems, wells to produce enough water for all that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That’s what I was going to ask. Where does that water come from here? Like, if you have those sprinklers in a big pivot, one of those big circle irrigators that goes around, where is that water coming from? Is that from a well that’s underneath that irrigator?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, a couple of different sources. So, we got a canal that runs close to our farm, so we’ll pull out of there for some ground and then we got deep wells for some of it, too, so kind of a combination between those two things. It’s all sorts of water.

Dillon Honcoop:
And out here, where does the water in the canal come from? Is that part of the whole system of dams and rivers?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, so Columbia River, just behind Grand Coulee right there. So, they’ll pump it up, and then it will go into banks, Banks Lake, and that’s a massive reservoir, and then it will go through canal systems. And Billy Clapp Lake down into a whole network of both big and small canals. So, we’re close to the East Low, so one of the biggest canals will pump directly out of. That’s a really good source of water. I mean, it’s I think, 600,000 acres irrigated out of that whole system. And I think we’re only using like 3% of the Columbia River. So, it’s amazing how much water’s going through there and proportionally how little we’re actually using of the river to irrigate all that and create economy that’s pretty massive in this area.

Dillon Honcoop:
And a lot of people fed.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
All over the globe, really.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thinking about all the controversy over the dams and stuff and a lot of people think, “Oh, well, we can replace that hydro power,” but those dams are so much more than just hydro power, right? Hydro power isn’t necessarily for some of the dams in our region. The first most important use, right? It’s irrigation, flood control, and lot of those other things. Well, what did those mean to you in being able to farm here?

Derek Friehe:
I mean, that’s everything. I mean, that’s the only reason people are here. This is a desert. I mean, I don’t know how big Moses Lake was before, but it was pretty small and I don’t think people liked living here for that reason. The dust blows and you can’t even do dryland wheat, really. I mean, you’re getting 40-bushel dryland wheat here, just because we don’t get enough rain. So, you completely transform the whole region of the state that produces food, like you said, for the nation, for around the world. And then families, communities, recreation. I mean, sometimes I complain about the west siders that come over here to kind of get out of the city and fish, hunt, because I mean, there’s boat, recreation, all that stuff. So, it provides for a whole state in a lot of ways, so a pretty amazing area.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of a focus do you guys have on environmental issues with your farm?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I think it’s both. It’s in our self-interest. I mean, yeah, stuff gets mandated that we don’t always like, because they don’t make sense and they’re pretty burdensome. But yeah, big picture, I mean, we want to take care of stuff. I mean, even big push on like soil health and raising organic matter and all that. I mean, yeah, we will run to that. I mean, all that stuff helps us grow crops and keeps things around for again, I go back to the generational thing. I mean, farmers typically are kind of family businesses that they want to keep for generations. So you are thinking long term, you’re thinking, “My kids and grandkids, what are they going to be farming?”

Derek Friehe:
It’s not just, “Hey, I’m going to take a short term, mind the soil and abuse things just, so I can get a short term profit gain. I literally am short handing my kids and my grandkids.” So, there’s like a built in, I think, check on that and you’re looking at the short-term like my decision to put more manure down or green manure crops might not pay off by next year, but you do know like, “Hey. This is the science behind it and this is good,” like a long-term investment that that will pay off at some point, again for future generations and all.

Dillon Honcoop:
Green manure, what does that mean?

Derek Friehe:
Like a plant that’s not necessarily a cash crop, so like after I’d take off wheat or something I could plant like a lagoon or something that builds the soil. I’m not necessarily taking nutrients off, but it could fixate nitrogen, it could kind of build the soil and you’re putting it back in and I mean, that’s a real cost. I got by the seed, I got a plant it, I got to fertilize, sometimes I got to water it, all that stuff just to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Also, the opportunity cost of not getting some other crop off of there, right?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, right, so yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
But that builds the soil, and ultimately, you’re fertilizing your soil in a more natural way.

Derek Friehe:
Yep. Yep. So, that’s a long-term play. I can’t put that on the spreadsheet and say, “Hey, I know my cost and this is, I got a 5% return on that investment.” Like yeah, no, but it’s still good and I’m thinking long-term.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys are doing some organic stuff?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you get into that? What does that involve? And is that potatoes or is that other things?

Derek Friehe:
We haven’t done potatoes yet. We have another processor down the road that does a lot of fresh or processed sweet corn and peas, and so, we’ve gone the sweet corn. It got us into it and then that’s actually my brother’s expertise and what he’s gotten into, so he’s really taken the bull by the horns on the organic and we’ve the three-year process to transition conventional to organic. And so it’s again a long view of like, “All right. We’re going to invest in this and probably take in the shorts and lose money for those three years while we transition.” But definitely a big learning curve on it’s a different way of farming and it definitely has its value and benefits and hardships. I mean, I tried to plant a circle of peas this year and had to plant twice and second time even failed to, so it’s sort of-

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, it was farm conventionally a long time and I think there was some like Pythium build up and because it’s organic, you can’t put any seed treat on it, so I think it just attacks the seed and-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s Pythium?

Derek Friehe:
It’s like bacteria that’s in the soil. I mean, there’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Some soil pest.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s attacks the seed.

Derek Friehe:
There’s all like hundreds of them, thousands that are in there that they’re everywhere. It’s just peas are a little more susceptible. Yeah, that’s organic. I mean, down the road, I did exact same variety with a seed treat and it looks awesome. So, just the cost of doing organic sometimes, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
And such is the way of farming, too where you’re going to do one thing and then you try something different and find out, “Oh, there’s this issue,” some issue that you hadn’t dealt with before.

Derek Friehe:
Yep. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Always something new.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. And I mean, as long as you’re learning from it. I mean, you try to sometimes those are expensive mistakes and yeah, you try to imagine what you’re going to do different next year, even though the second time planting, I thought I had fixed that, I think and apparently not, but yeah, that’s what’s great about farming, right? You’re not producing a widget. I mean, it’s everything’s changing. There’s a hundred different variables that go into producing good crop. So, there’s always something different and you’re always puzzling, always trying to figure it out and it keeps you on your toes and sometimes awake at night, but it’s fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what do you all grow? I guess we’ve talked a lot about potatoes.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you mentioned sweet corn and you mentioned something else, too.

Derek Friehe:
Wheat.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you talked about peas and wheat.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Bluegrass seed is another big one, so Kentucky Bluegrass seed is another big rotational crop. And then we’ve gotten into organic asparagus is a new growing emerging crop on our farm, which is interesting because it’s like a spring harvest, so while we’re planting everything else, we’re harvesting the asparagus, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
When do you plant the asparagus then?

Derek Friehe:
Well, that’s also-

Dillon Honcoop:
In the fall or in the middle of winter, or what?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, we just actually got done planting another field.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Derek Friehe:
But it’s going to be three years until you’re in production.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really? Wow.

Derek Friehe:
It’s a long, it’s a perennial crop, so it could stand in the ground for 10, 15 years, but yeah, that’s the latest and greatest on our farm. But yeah, like I said, alfalfa, Timothy hay, sometimes we do beans if fits in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s all about-

Derek Friehe:
Canola seed, a couple of fields of that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s all about the rotation or which dirt given field is or what makes the call on that?

Derek Friehe:
Well, because potatoes the big one, we’re rotating around that, so you got that every four years, so the other three years, you’re figuring out what to grow. And sweet corn works really good in rotation. It’s good before potatoes. It builds up the soil before going to potatoes. And again, some of us markets. We got a processor down the road, so it makes it really easy to deliver to them. Wheat, I don’t always like to do wheat. It’s not that profitable, but it works really well before bluegrass. And the Bluegrass is good from both the soil health standpoint and seed crops. You can sometimes make more money. So, kind of between those solid four and then you can mix it up here and there.

Derek Friehe:
And doing a lot of alfalfa because it transitions really well to organic, so your number one issue in organic is weeds. You’re just constantly dealing with weeds and so alfalfa because you’re cutting it four times a year, you’re constantly picking out weeds. So it’s an easier way to transition and you still have a crop that you’re hopefully breaking even on or making some money on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where does that alfalfa go? I mean, that’s bailed up as hay or is it forage, like forage crop?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. So, it’s also mostly exported, too if it’s high enough quality. So, down the road, we got some friends that run a press and a lot of times we’ll sell our alfalfa to them. They’ll press it, cube it, put it into containers and ship it overseas, so to Asia and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And they’re feeding it to cattle over there?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, dairy cows. I think dairy cow is a big one. Sometimes horses, but cattle. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So much stuff to keep track of. How do you track at all?

Derek Friehe:
I don’t. I can’t. Yeah. No, we got it we got a good team. We got a lot of guys that keep track of different things. And so, that’s probably, yeah. No one person can keep track of it all, that’s for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you came in coming from the business world and got involved in some of the business stuff here, did you make some changes, kind of say, “Hey, here’s some new ways of going about things,” or how do you manage that kind of stuff?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I mean, not… I see little things that I could have done. Like I took over it stuff, I was like, “We need an IT company. We need better internet.” I mean, people are always complaining about the internet. So, I don’t know. I just found little things that people had issues with that weren’t up to my standards, I guess. We need good internet here. That’s important.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does a farm need internet for?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, my gosh. Well, that’s a good-

Dillon Honcoop:
I could probably answer that question, but you can probably answer it better than me.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, well, especially well, our accounting. We have a really good accounting team and they’re pretty connected with all that stuff. But I mean, you’re a big thing, well, this relates to another issue I saw like utilizing technology was like on pivot, like pivot control, having stuff on your like telemetry, having it on your phone. It’s expensive to get it on your phone. We use field net, so that’s a thematic product and that’s all the circles that we have mostly. But basically getting the panel, the circle panel on your phone and being able to control it from there was like huge. And I definitely made a push to get that done and we tested on a few fields and I was like, “This is a no brainer.” like this is-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what can you control them from your phone, like you could actually irrigator?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. You can start it, you can stop it, you can set programs, you can set when it stops, you can view it from anywhere to figure out where it’s at. If it breaks down, you get a text. I mean, it’s just real time. And having to drive in every single time, wear and tear and pickups. It’s pretty amazing like how much. I mean, sometimes I’m lying in bed, like checking it and I can set a call stop and start, so that it stops at a certain time and that saved me a whole trip out there, like it’s definitely paid for itself. And it’s just one of those technology pieces that is pretty amazing that 15 years ago didn’t have that huge productivity efficiency gains.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that save water? Like being able to make sure that you don’t have issues there and you have your timing right for irrigation?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. I suppose it can save. Yeah, yeah. It can save. I mean, you could just be more precise, you can plan a little better, you can make sure it’s off when it needs to be or check it quicker and make sure either it’s on or off, but more so just for the crop itself. If something happens, you can respond a lot quicker if it’s on and not moving and watering in one place. I mean, just from a crop man, I mean, I think you can do a better job irrigating, get better crops from it, for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus if it breaks down in the middle of the night and just sits there pouring water into one spot and you have a big mud hole and you wasted a bunch of water and you have a big mess on your hands.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah. Yeah or if it really needs water, and it shuts off in the middle of the night, and maybe I wasn’t getting to that field until midmorning, but I can first thing right there, turn it up. It’s going to get hot and needs it, and so yeah, your response. So, ideally, you should be able to get better crops.

Dillon Honcoop:
It makes it hard to get away from work, though.

Derek Friehe:
In some ways.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess, you’d have to wake up in the middle of the night and adjust your irrigation if you wanted to fumble out in bed.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. No, in some ways… Yeah, but yeah. No, but in some ways, it makes it easier like I can take off for weekend and still monitor stuff I need to or make some changes and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Spend actually a little bit of time with your family.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
But keep an eye on the irrigation.

Derek Friehe:
Exactly. Well, I love it. I can’t go back, even though it costs a little bit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But, it’s pretty sweet.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest thing on the farm since you’ve been back? And farming has its challenges, what’s been the most challenging time for you so far?

Derek Friehe:
It’s just the learning curve is steep. I mean, it’s one of those things I want to figure out. I want to solve it a lot quicker than just the seasonality of farming allows for. I encounter problem with planting like, I don’t come around to that specific thing for another year and so it takes me five years to get just those five events to happen as opposed to if it was replicating itself more often. I could really feel like getting up to speed quicker and just the long process and just long enough for years, so that you forget and having to relearn it, and it’s just… I mean, that’s why these good farmers, I mean, they’ve been doing it 50, 60 years. They’d just seen everything and there’s no book that can teach that to you.

Dillon Honcoop:
Even though, them, I mean, 50 years, that’s only 50 chances.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you got to make each one of those count.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that’s a lifetime.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. That’s not very many. I mean, it is and it isn’t. I mean, it’s yeah. You really got to be on top of it and try to ideally take notes or I don’t know. I mean, it’s just, yeah, a lot of it’s by gut for a lot of these guys just because they’ve done it so many times, but it’s taken so many years to get to that point. So, that’s been the toughest thing. I wish I could learn way faster and it’s just sometimes slow.

Dillon Honcoop:
You set some kind of record or something with wheat growing, right?

Derek Friehe:
You saw that, did you?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, what was the story there? As a potato grower, well, obviously you guys grow wheat on your rotation, but it sounds like you’ve really honed in on some cool stuff that you’re doing with growing wheat.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. So I became the wheat guy a couple of years ago and I take this on and managed it. And so, I did and I looking around and I saw that that competition, a lot of the winners were coming out of this area and it’s like, “Man, are we missing something?” They’re literally miles away and they’re getting yields like that, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the competition? Like what’s-

Derek Friehe:
It’s just a national wheat yield competition. I mean, it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s like to see who can get the most off of an acre or how?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it’s small plots so it’s like three-acre test plot that you got to set it aside, harvest it, weigh it, have it certified by a third party and if it’s a tie enough, you can win the competition. So, it’s not like a full field but it’s still kind of a small sample size. And anyway, I saw that. I saw some of the ground mist, who were involved in that and just reached out to him like, “Hey, we got to grow wheat. Can you help us out?” And so, I brought him in. Yeah and like first year, we took part in it. We got a combination of picking the right spot, good year, good field. And yeah, won it with 180 bushels to the acre, so not that the whole field did that but that three-acre plot that did it. Yeah, it’s cool. Won a trip to San Antonio and yeah, kind of fun for the farm, I think for the guys to see that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, this is what the highest wheat yields in the country?

Derek Friehe:
The nation, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
For certain class oats irrigated spring wheats, so as opposed to either dryland spring wheat or winter wheat or irrigated winter wheat and all that, so in that class, it got the highest. But yeah, it was kind of amazing, because we’re only potato growers, so I think it was surprising for the guys, it’s like, “Oh, okay.” Because we do other crops pretty well too, but it’s kind of fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Something like that though, does that change the way the things that you discover when you’re doing that. Does that change the way you farm the rustier wheat from little the test plot or?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We’ve definitely made some changes. I mean, it’s a small sample one year. I mean, you take that with a grain of salt, like you need to replicate that for a few years, different fields, see if we can get the same results. But yeah, yeah, I made some changes to the program. And again, I think our farm is more like, “Hey, we’re not going to spend a ton of money on wheat.” It’s low cost. Let’s just plant it because we have to, and it’s a good rotation, but not spending a ton of energy, time on it.

Derek Friehe:
So yeah, I kind of took it over, and I’m still learning a lot and that was part of it, too, is bringing in somebody that can teach and compare notes with and see what they’re doing. So yeah, it’s helpful and yeah, icing on the cake to witness something like that, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What did the long-time wheat farmers in the neighborhood say to you about that really? What are you doing, you young buck?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
You got lucky.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, I know. Sometimes, I think it was lucky, but no, it’s a good area. I mean, like I said this area, I think some of the neighbors have worn it before and they’re at the right latitude. We got the right temperatures. I mean, it’s got good water, soil. It all adds up. I mean, I listened to a deal yesterday, I think UK and New Zealand are the highest grossing wheat yields in the world and a guy in New Zealand got like 250 bushels or something. So anyway, that puts in perspective, there’s still a long way to go, but it’s pretty amazing to be able to get those yields.

Dillon Honcoop:
So now, are you gunning for 250 bushels.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think you could do that?

Derek Friehe:
No. Not right away. We’ll get there.

Dillon Honcoop:
[crosstalk 00:54:49], isn’t it?

Derek Friehe:
If I can get it to 200, I’d be happy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. I don’t know if that’s ever happened in the U.S., probably not.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thanks for sharing your story. There’s a lot of cool stuff you guys have going on here and I could sense it right away when I drove onto the farm, just signage and the people here, and it was a really positive vibe.

Derek Friehe:
Oh, good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, I could tell it you guys really care about what you’re doing here.

Derek Friehe:
Good. Yeah. No. It’s a hopefully a good play. I mean, you don’t know what employees are saying behind locked doors, but you hope you create a culture that they look forward to coming to work to and feel taken care of, and feel part of the family.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I appreciate you being willing to open up and share the personal side of all of it, too.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Derek is so relaxed, and it’s just… I mean, obviously, he’s faced challenges and done a lot of different stuff, a lot of hard work, but you can tell he’s just the person that can take it as it comes and keeps a positive attitude and it really was cool visiting the farm there because they’re a big operation but it doesn’t feel like that. Everyone’s communicating and talking. It’s a really positive atmosphere and I really enjoyed my visit there at Friehe Farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you enjoyed this conversation with Derek, make sure to check out our YouTube channel. I’m just starting to get it up and going, so I’ll be adding more stuff as I go here, and hopefully I’ll even be able to add some of the conversation that went on even beyond what we have here on the podcast, some extra conversation that we had. I want to say before it was over, but it’s only over when it’s over and I get my car and drive away. The conversation just continues, so I’ve got more of that to share on our YouTube channel. Just Real Food, Real People on YouTube, just search it up. It should be easy to find.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for your support. Thank you for subscribing Google podcasts, on Spotify, on Apple podcasts, you name it. Also, following our social media channels Real Food, Real People on Facebook, on Twitter and on Instagram, and checking out our website realfoodrealpeople.org. Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop, grew up on a family farm and I just want to share the stories of family farmers and all the other people behind our food, in the restaurant world, in the research world, we’ve had here people who distribute food. All kinds of stuff that is part of bringing food grown here to our tables.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Andrew Schultz part 1 | #026 06/08/2020

His journey to farming took him to Iraq and back, and now he's changing the way wine grapes are grown in Washington state. Meet Andrew Schultz, US Army veteran and founder of Brothers in Farms near Benton City.

Transcript

Andrew Schultz:
It still felt like maybe I’m not a farmer. I’m pretending or something, but after about year three, year four, after we dealt with some pretty hard curveballs that were thrown to us, I was like, “Okay, I think I’m in this and I think I’m good at it.” Now, I’m a farmer so [laugh].

Announcer 1:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
The amount of work and science and art that goes into those Washington wines that we’ve all grown to love so much is incredible. Our guest this week gives us an eye into what’s going on behind the scenes with all that, how it really works and how they grow amazing grapes here in Washington to make wine. Andrew Schultz is our guest this week and next. I learned so much about growing grapes and how it makes amazing wine in this conversation. I kind of geeked out as a farm kid. Also, some people are just natural born leaders and that’s Andrew.

Dillon Honcoop:
By the end of this conversation, I was feeling like, “Can you hire me?” His vision for what they’re doing, I just wanted to be a part of it. It was magnetic. So, join me in this conversation, really cool stuff. You’re going to learn so much about what really goes into wine and really be inspired by Andrew and his backstory, the things that he went through to lead him to where he is now, incredible stuff. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast and we’re glad that you’re here this week. Don’t forget to subscribe. I know you’ve got a long backstory, but let’s just start with how did you get into farming?

Andrew Schultz:
Farming in general? So, I got out of the service, was where I actually started, were actually I was farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
You served in the Marines?

Andrew Schultz:
I was in the US Army.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the army, yup. Okay.

Andrew Schultz:
I got out. We had the GI Bill and I actually wanted to be a brewer. I became a brewer within six months of exiting. I basically listened to a bunch of podcasts from California while I was driving back and forth, going to school. Then I sat down at a local brewery, I didn’t know I was sitting next to a head brewer. Him and I started having a conversation. He was supposed to teach me how to distill. Instead he calls me up in like a month and asked me to work for him. It was kind of interesting working for him because he liked doing all the production brewing and all that stuff for the main products, but he kicked down the majority of the odd beers to me and brewing club and stuff. So, I ended up brewing 12 to 14 styles, probably on average per year.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was your thing? What was your favorite? I mean, you’re talking odd stuff, what kind of stuff were you working on?

Andrew Schultz:
One of my favorite beers is an Altbier from Germany and reason why I like the Altbier is it’s like the predecessor to the red beer. I’m not even really that much of a red beer fan, but it’s a predecessor to it, which is really cool because Louis Pasteur came out with basically a yeast. It was for pilsners and stuff like that, produces a lot more phenolics and that’s why they have a lagering process. Back in the day, they didn’t have temperature control for grain to be able to roast it. So, it was either really heavily toasted or it was really lightly toasted.

Andrew Schultz:
So, how they created these red beers out there back in the day was it was built and fermented and treated just like a Pilsner except for in the process, in the beginning, they had a small portion of really heavily roasted grain essentially. So, what you end up getting is this really light bodied beer that has this roastiness to it. So, that was one of my favorite styles of beer that I like brewing.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re making me thirsty for beer already. We’ve just started talking. This isn’t good.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, I should have brought some beer along with.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So, you were in brewing, and then how did that lead to farming?

Andrew Schultz:
Well, so I was going to community college in Pendleton for the first six months to pick up classes because I needed to do something after I got out. I basically took nine months off of not working or whatever. Started at WSU in the fall, had that conversation with that brewer sometime around August or September right after I’d started classes, and was living in Tri-Cities and bought a home. So, I actually accepted that job to be the brewer and I did it on the weekends.

Andrew Schultz:
And then at the same time, I’d send an email to a professor that worked at IAREC which is Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Prosser, one of the largest research centers in the US for agriculture. It was Dr. Naidu Rayapati. He was interested in having somebody basically help him do grape leaf roll virus epidemiology, and I accepted that as well. That was flex time during school. So, basically, in the afternoons during the week, I would go out and I would count these fields based on this visual identification. We put them in Excel sheets to map the virus spread over a number of years.

Andrew Schultz:
I’ve worked with him for about 11 years now in different capacities over the last three or four years because I’ve had different jobs but we still do research on our properties and use him quite a bit to help him understand how to deal with that major virus in the wine industry. It was funny because they put me on this property that we’re out right now, which is Klipsun Vineyards. I met the GM at the time which was Julia cook, and she ended up hiring me for a job because she liked me. So, so now I got three jobs, right? Plus, I was taking full time classes 15, 16 credit hours in school.

Andrew Schultz:
What I said when I was going into essentially school, “If I’m going to go to school for this thing, I’m going to work in the industry that I’m going to school for so that I can cut the curve of actually getting a good paying job when I get out and all those other things.” I wasn’t planning on forming yet at the time by picking up those two jobs, the epidemiology job and then work in flex time as a VitTech at Klipsun. I actually fell in love with farming. I was looking for a solution, I don’t want to be in an office anymore, sitting behind a desk. I found out I was pretty good at, so I just kind of hammered down on that. So, then I said, “Well, brewing seemed to be pretty easy. I think I’m going to go this farming path.”

Dillon Honcoop:
You wanted more of a challenge.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah, I think that’s really what it came down to in the end based on the other jobs and stuff I’ve had to pass, I’m a systems thinker. So, the ultimate system is one that takes away a lot of control, and you still have to get the same outcome in the end. That’s essentially a really concise way to put farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
There are so many things that are just entirely out of your control, aren’t there?

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest thing for you guys that’s you can’t control it and it could totally mess you up?

Andrew Schultz:
Trying to understand how much heat’s going to be in a particular year, you can build your crop a different way. But for the most part, now we’ve kind of systematize the whole thing, at least the way that my company looks at growing grapes. So, we measure a bunch of different factors in the vineyard essentially that help us understand how much light is coming into the canopy. We really do that on how many shoots are per lineal foot within a canopy, and then the trellis equation basically says that you have to have 40 inches of canopy so we do what we can to get there. And then the fruit load should be as far as what we’ve seen for really high-quality stuff between 1.6 and 1.8 pounds per foot of court on out there.

Andrew Schultz:
So, if you can hit all those parameters in any one year, then by and large you’ll get what you want in the end. But we create all those systems, because every year and I have yet to see anything different, these are all decisions. If we hit these, then we should be in some pretty high-quality bracket. What that allows us to do is that systematizes a lot of our normal decision-making process and that kind of allow us to basically manage the anomalies. They happen different every year. 2016 and 2017 were some of the highest winter rain for our area in the last 20 years. So, getting rid of that water is probably the biggest trick that we have is. Essentially what we do is we let the plant farm that, so we won’t irrigate during that time. So, the plant pulls out and uses as much as possible.

Andrew Schultz:
When we get down to where there’s near zero plant availability, then we basically manage and control that stress over about a three-week period, and then we go back to full irrigation for the rest of the year. So, the biggest trick is being able to get rid of the water and years where we have a bunch, or understand that we don’t have enough, or maybe it’s evenly distributed in the soil and how we’re going to approach those things. So, those are usually the biggest decisions, those types of anomalies. There’s other ones too that pop up some really odd ones. One of them was for example, it would have been 2016, we had a really warm start to the year. So, soil temperatures in the valley were sitting right around 47 degrees.

Andrew Schultz:
A lot of the plants start to come out of dormancy, but it’s a biological system. So, not everything comes out of dormancy evenly. What ends up happening is part of those buds came out of dormancy, and we’re working at a really slow metabolic rate because the temperature went back down for about a month. Part of them hadn’t come out of dormancy. So, when the temperature warmed up, the canopy was uneven a on a per plant basis, which means that it’s not human created. And then two months later, we’re trying to make decisions on how to shut the canopy down or when. You’ve got canes in there that are at your 40 inches, and you’ve got canes in there that are at 30 inches. Which one do you manage to?

Andrew Schultz:
So, what we ended up doing in that particular case was we just bit the bullet on the cost. We managed to the shortest canes, because that was going to get everything to where we wanted. We went back and it ended up not being as bad as we thought. We ran some guys through some machetes real quick. They knocked off the tips of a lot of those canes that were long, and then everything was great.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does this all mean for the wine drinker? All these things that are changing and you’re dealing with, is that changing the flavor, what they experienced when they open that bottle? Is it changing just how much of it’s available?

Andrew Schultz:
So what I can speak to is or at least what my job is or how I view my job is what we do is we try to give the winemaker as much material to use as possible to make the best wine possible. So, some of those things that are, I call them non-purchasable. They absolutely are purchasable. These large companies buy things like mega purple and stuff like that to make wine have more color or tannins that are derived from either other plants or the same plant. A lot of those are a single type of tannin or maybe a single type of acid and not what you actually get in nature, which is this really nice wide breadth of natural acids or natural tannins, different sizes and things like that. So, we try to give that to the winemaker, so they can make the best wine possible.

Andrew Schultz:
One of those things is essentially the skin of the berry has all the stuff in it that makes a wine in case of red wines makes a wine red. It makes a wine have mouthfeel and all these other things that people want, flavor. So, that’s essentially what we’re trying to increase. There’s arguments with the way people look at these things or whatever, but what I kind of view is total polymorphic pigments is really what we’re trying to increase, because that’s the hardest thing from a wine quality standpoint, are the thing that can be washed out by over-irrigation or not enough stress in a particular point in the year.

Andrew Schultz:
So, you can literally have two crops side by side on the same property, same environmental conditions, everything, and one crop will be four tons per acre and the other crop will be four tons per acre. There’s a huge quality difference. The four on the left might take 35 clusters to get to four tons per acre, and the other one might take 25 clusters to get to four tons per acre. At surface to volume ratio is huge so you want-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s going to change the flavor.

Andrew Schultz:
Absolutely. So, you want the one that’s got 35 clusters, because you’ve got more skin in that. So, when they press it out, in many cases with the stuff that we’re producing, and whether it’s a property or part of our management, could be in contention but essentially the numbers that we’ve returned back consistently as high end stuff is considered somewhere around 3,000. Low end management might return about 1,200 in this concentration of total polymeric pigments. Really decent management somewhere in 1,600 to 1,800 range. Our stuff over the last several years, we’ve been producing is somewhere between 25,000 and 28,000.

Andrew Schultz:
The finished product of a lot of these high end wines, they actually take our grapes and manage it down to about 2,100 to 2,200, in some cases 2,300, as opposed to like basically getting those grapes in and then trying to beat the skins to get as much stuff out of them as possible or bleeding off some of the juice and replacing it with water to get the alcohol and concentration to be correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
What makes an amazing wine? I mean, you’re talking about high end wines, what does that mean? What’s a high-end wine? How do you define that? What really kind of separates the wheat from the chaff so to speak?

Andrew Schultz:
That’s a difficult question. A large percentage of Washington State is, say 90+% actually goes to three main companies in the state. So, they formed those grapes completely different. A lot of with machines and stuff like that, and that’s three main wineries. I think, to date, maybe there’s somewhere around 1,000 wineries in Washington State. So, it kind of shows you the breath that exists out there even on that 5 to 10% level. So, the guys that we deal with primarily and what we try to do and what they’re looking for is they want to have the right property that naturally gets to the right bricks and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Bricks being the amount of sugar, of sweetness.

Andrew Schultz:
Absolutely, yeah. They want him to get to right amount of sweetness so that they’re not under ripe and so they produce these flavors. Certain sites lend to that easier every year and some sites don’t, but through correct irrigation and stuff like that, you can essentially build this grape where the winemakers actually take it in and they just try not to screw it up. That’s kind of like what my version of a high-end wine is.

Andrew Schultz:
It doesn’t necessarily mean price point either, because there’s some winemakers out there that are making $25 and $30 bottles that are absolutely worth every penny and more based on their flavor and their winemaking style and how consistent they are. And then there’s guys out there that charge $100, $150, or $200 per bottle. Some of those are really great and some aren’t worth the money either.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was going to ask you. These really high dollar bottles of wine, if I go to a restaurant and see that I can go to the… Well I guess, I was going to say top of those. Usually, it’s the bottom of the list, that bottle that’s $100 and some dollars. Is that really going to be that? But I never buy that one because I can’t afford it. But does it really taste that much better and why?

Andrew Schultz:
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of people give me wine or be in tastings where we’ve done these things and compare them side by side. Yeah, so it’s hit and miss. It’s really hard for the consumer to know. I mean, the reality is, is when they walk into a grocery store and I don’t know what the average is now, but a few years ago, the average was like 1,600 skews or something like that of just wine in one store. When they’re purchasing a $10 or $25 or $30 bottle, even at that end, they don’t want to make a mistake and get something that they don’t like necessarily. So, once they find something that they do, a lot of times they’ll stick-

Dillon Honcoop:
Stick.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, or maybe they go on tasting.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I do. I go there, and I’m like overwhelmed by all the different brands. I try to do some reading for a while. Usually, I’ll spend a few minutes there reading bottles and trying to understand and looking at years and stuff. And then I’m just like, “I don’t know,” and either just kind of pick something that looks cool based on what the graphic design, or something that I’ve had before?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. For people in Washington, I mean, Woodinville’s an excellent resource. Walla Walla, if you want to make a trip, or even in the Tri-Cities area, there’s some major outlets that have a ton of wineries. Now, I think they’re charging some tasting fees, but it’s fun to go out, find something that you like that’s local. Ask the people there and get the story and taste the wine. If you like it, great. I’m sure that anybody can find something that tastes great, is locally produced, and a really high-quality wine at many different price points in Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, when did it hit you that “I am a farmer and I’m passionate about it,” like it became an identity thing for you?

Andrew Schultz:
So, I ended up dropping out of school. I went to four years of college for Viticulture and Enology. I brewed that whole time on the weekend, ended up quitting that job. When I picked up my job to go basically be a General Manager at a farm and where it was 110 acres at the time. In over five years, we built it up to about 175 acres. There’s other properties and tree fruit and stuff that we dealt with besides grapes, but 175 acres of grapes is what we dealt with there in 23 varieties. Part of that was done in test blocks and things like that, but it was a really cool undertaking because you kind of understand all the personalities of these grapes.

Andrew Schultz:
They all have different personalities, and how they grow, or why they want to grow, or how much they want to produce, or how to control them, how they deal with water, or the season. I mean, some like wind, some don’t. Some like a lot of water, some don’t. So, once I moved to his property after the first year, I was like, “Okay, I really kind of dig this.” And then the second year, it was like, “I’m really digging this.” It still felt like maybe I’m not a farmer. I’m pretending or something, but after about year three, year four, after we dealt with some pretty hard curveballs that were thrown to us, I was like, “Okay, I think I’m in this and I think I’m good at it.” Now, I’m a farmer so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you grow up? You didn’t grow up around farming, did you?

Andrew Schultz:
Indirectly. I grew up in Hermiston, Oregon which is a big farming town. I’ve had aunts and uncles. I come from a big family, so aunts and uncles and everything that had been in farming. Some of them currently build stuff for processing facilities and things like that, but other than hanging out with my dad when I was a kid… He worked for a place called Circle C, which did hay cubes. They sold those hay cubes to Japan, but he did that job for 17 years. Probably 5 or 6 of those years, I was old enough to remember. We’d go on truck rides and stuff together. I go out to the farm and stuff, but really wasn’t directly related to or didn’t spend a whole lot of time in any way.

Andrew Schultz:
My grandfather was big farmer, but he died when I was really young, right around 1988 or 1989. He was a German guy, he loved his sheep. He had pigs and a lot of watermelons and stuff that are grown down in Hermiston. But again, I was really young, and I didn’t get exposed to a lot of that. And then going to high school and stuff, I didn’t hang out in FFA or with any of those guys necessarily. I had cowboy friends that farmed wheat and all this stuff, but again wasn’t directly in…

Andrew Schultz:
When I came back from Iraq, because I came back from Iraq and literally was like 8, 10 days later, I out-processed and left Germany. I was back in the US. In that spring, among attending and going into school at Pendleton, I took a greenhouse class, which I really enjoyed. We produce stuff for the local market and so there was timing and all these things that we had to plan for it. It was fantastic. Yeah, so that was kind of when I first started. So, I really wasn’t exposed to it much other than I grew up around it, but I never really dealt with it.

Andrew Schultz:
I was more into going snowboarding and bike, stuff like that when I was a kid, or fishing really, that was my main thing. I think I used to joke, because I fished like 300 days a year or something on the local route. We weren’t even catching anything good. I mean, I could count on my hands. Maybe twice a year, I might get some smelt or something that was running up the river. I might get a smallmouth bass like once a year or something, but the rest of it was all squab fish so.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you were having fun fishing.

Andrew Schultz:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fishing is more about the process, right? Which is why I’m no good at it, because I have no patience. Talk about the army. Did you go into the army right after high school?

Andrew Schultz:
No, I didn’t, kind of took an odd path. I went in at 24, which is a lot older. So, they had to put me right around 2004. I didn’t go into the army. There’s a lot of people at that time when they were going in the army, they were going in because of country pride or family tradition type of deal, or something that’s probably the main stuff. I went in at that time mainly because, one, I think I was trying to escape my situation. Somewhere on the back end, now that I look back at it, not that I was in a bad situation, just that I felt like I needed to change or do something.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have you been doing after high school then up until 24? How was enlisting?

Andrew Schultz:
I was fairly successful. I’ve always been put in charge of stuff. The same thing happen when I went into service too, but at 16 years old, I was supposed to be a busboy. Within three months of getting hired there, they fired the chef. He asked me, “Hey, kid, are you hungry?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well then cook it yourself,” and he used an expletive when he did. The guy was kind of a jerk. He was a Type A individual, so he’d written all these notes all over the kitchen. So, he taught me how to read all of his notes. Three months later, when he got fired on a Thursday night, the owner thought that he was going to come back. He didn’t. It was like Friday.

Dillon Honcoop:
Called his bluff.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, and it was a steakhouse in Echo, Oregon, called the Echo Hotel that used to be an operation. It was a pretty good steakhouse. It was four-star at one time, but when I was there, it probably wasn’t. Anyways, so really long pause when the owners like “Hey, does anybody know how to cook prime rib?” Nobody says anything, and the 16-year-old kid is like, “Yeah, I know how to cook it.” We cooked 5-, 6-, 30-pound prime ribs every Friday and Saturday night plus during the week and everything. So, that’s what I did while I was in high school, and I got done doing that. I went into warehousing essentially.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I worked for Walmart Distribution System Center in Hermiston for two years. I was put in charge of the dock within six months, not as a manager or anything, but I ran all the doors. So, we bring in and out, unload 50 trucks in a day. So, that was kind of my first foray into management. So, I had 15 people that would take all the pallets around the warehouse, off of the dock, and 15, 20 people that would unload those trailers. Then I left there and decided to go to school in Portland for art school, which was kind of an odd move, but that was kind of what my passion was at the time. So, I went down there, and started going to that, and started lifting weights when I was in Portland, and ended up dropping out of that school.

Andrew Schultz:
The main reason why I dropped out of that was I basically sat there and for me, I was like, “Well, as a graphic designer, how am I going to sell anything to a world that I don’t know about?” I realized that I didn’t know anything about the world yet, because I’m only 20 years old and lived in a small town all my life except for the last six months or a year or something like that in a big city or a larger city. So, that’s when I kind of dropped out of school and I started working for Sears and warehouse. I did that for a couple years. And then I went into beer and wine distribution, which is actually what I got into. I did that for another year. And then I enlisted in the service and left. I did it for leadership purposes.

Andrew Schultz:
By that point, I’ve been put in charge of warehouses and people and things like that, that I started piecing together how this whole thing worked, even though I wouldn’t really consider myself a real good leader at that point. But yeah, I started piecing all these things together, and I said, “Well 232-year-old organization at the time,” I was like, “they got to know something about leadership.” So, I went in, and that’s exactly what I got schooled on. There was excellent leadership and there was absolutely terrible leadership at the same time. I learned just as much from each one of those individuals as I could. I went in the service. In basic training, I ended up most distinguished honor graduate.

Andrew Schultz:
And then when I went to training for another six or eight months for the radar stuff that we dealt with, I was put in charge of platoons there, and then I was put in charge of the next platoon that I was in on that base. And then I showed up to my unit in Germany. Within about a year, I was put in charge in my section, and then put into a sergeant role at about two and a half years. In the day I was promoted to E-5, they put me in E-6 role to run the division for what we did. And then we were sent to Iraq. And then there was supposed to be an E-7 in charge of us and he got augmented out to Baghdad. So, I ran his show and it’s like an E-5. It was 25 different vehicles. We had two different groups per hours and six different radars and told that we were managing in theater.

Andrew Schultz:
Of course, this came down to a lot of computer programming. We’re doing a reset. We’re basically moving from old internet and things like to actual Category 5 cables and real internet connections, which seems kind of late to be doing that around 2007, but that was a reality. Yeah, and so that was really fun. So, I learned a ton. I didn’t have the dangerous job necessarily in Iraq, but because of where the radars were located and our teams were located, I went to just about every single base. Some of them were absolutely terrible ones, not much bigger than a dog kennel in the middle of the desert in Northern Iraq. So, pretty much everywhere in Baghdad North where we had a base, I’ve stopped by there probably at one time or another.

Dillon Honcoop:
What a unique perspective or at least it seems like it to me, because I don’t think of people going in, enlisting in the army thinking, “I’m going to get basically professional development on leadership.” It makes a ton of sense looking at it from this view, but I know especially at that age, I would not have thought about it that way. Certainly with what was going on in the world at that time, I would have been scared like, “I’m going to be put in harm’s way if I do this,” with what was happening with the Iraq war. That had been going through your head at that point, like, “What am I signing up for here?”

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. To be honest, I mean, the reality is I was just young and dumb. Not that it’s dumb, it’s absolutely fantastic job. There’s great professional development, a lot of pluses for going in and serving the country and doing those things. So, I’m not taking away any of that or anything that anybody else puts in, whether they stay in the whole time or not. Even during a time of war, I mean we don’t really know what that is until we go and see it. So, I didn’t understand it completely and I didn’t understand what the full commitment really is. Because even after you get out, there’s stuff that you have to deal with on a personal level that you didn’t even… I like planning ahead. There’s things that I didn’t understand that I didn’t plan for that happened to me after I got back, and we had to deal with that stuff.

Andrew Schultz:
One really interesting one, I mean, obviously, I don’t know if you’ll get this in this interview or not, but I have a really good memory typically. I don’t know if that’s because I read a ton or not, but I lost it temporarily after I got back. I mean, literally, it was as bad as the day or two after I got back, I mean, I park my car, go into a subway or something like that, and come out. I’d have to search for my car, every single time. I mean, it was really weird.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? What did that?

Andrew Schultz:
What I ended up figuring out later, it took me about six months. It wasn’t quite that apparent. The first few weeks were really apparent, and then after that, I still had issues. One of the issues when I started going to college, WSU during that summer course that I took was I told the teacher. I just said, “Hey man. I’m not trying to be disrespectful or anything like that, but if I don’t show up to class, I may just have forgotten.” That was real, I told him. I said, “I really enjoyed the class, and I really enjoy you as a teacher, but sometimes I just forget this stuff. It’s hard for me to remember and it was. It was four or five years later, I found that old schedule and I looked at it. It was literally it was five days a week at 11:30 AM.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I mean, it was the easiest schedule to remember, but literally I’d be… I lived 40 minutes away at the time or something like that, but it would be like noon and then I’d realized that I forgot my class. So, what I found out what had happened, it really had nothing to do with me lose my memory. But once you’re over there and your priorities are different, remembering where your car parked is parked and stuff like that isn’t a priority, as opposed to the other things that are going on. And then you get back after you haven’t… Because you’re over there and something may happen or whatever.

Andrew Schultz:
So, when you get back, it’s like your mind has built all this stuff of potential or what you can do or whatever when you get back. So, in my mind, I figured out it was just rolling so fast that I just wasn’t paying attention to the things were right in front of my face. So, I kind of retrained my brain to slow down, and take the opportunities that come, and pay attention to the present. It was a real thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically, living and working in a warzone in that capacity, you have to be so keyed up to be managing that.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, and you don’t even think about it. I mean, all the normal things that somebody has is basically taken off your plate. I mean, foods in the same place every day if you’re on a base or something like that, or it might change if you’re on a different base. But you don’t have to worry because foods provided, so you’re not really worried about going to the store. There’s nobody hammering you with marketing or advertising, because you’re not watching TV. I mean, there’s no cell phones or anything back in the day that had any capabilities like that. So, we weren’t doing any of that. The internet still was fairly marginal at that time, especially for what you could get over there plus communications were bad.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I mean, literally, you’re removed from the world. Which is was a good thing too for me, because I saved all my money while I was in Iraq exactly for that reason. We didn’t have to spend it, so I didn’t. I saved and I had probably $40,00 to $50,000 that was saved between… And then I was injected back in January of 2009 to one of the worst economies in American history. I took that money and I bought a house. It’s $57,000, which is ridiculous to think nowadays, because they went up. All those same houses now are selling for like $180,000 and I sold mine after I went to school with a little mortgage and all that stuff. I sold it for $140,000 and that kind of got everything paid off.

Andrew Schultz:
Essentially, I went back to zero but with an education which was fantastic, because I have four years of school and didn’t owe anybody anything. So, then I could start building from there. That’s where the ideation for building a business and stuff like that came from. This is like, “Hey, I’m on a level playing field and I made some smart moves, even though I didn’t realize I was making them when I was that young. We’re going to roll with this.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you see some scary stuff over there in Iraq?

Andrew Schultz:
Personally, no. I mean, I say personally, no. My version in being mortared is probably different than most people’s. Four hundred or 500 feet away is not being mortared in my mind. But to somebody else, it may be or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Like having a mortar hit that close to you?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. Sometimes you don’t even see.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that would be mortared for me. Yikes.

Andrew Schultz:
You don’t even you don’t even see them. I mean, that’s the scary part, right? Yeah, you don’t even see them. It could be at night, like you’re leaving it 12:00 midnight or something like that. You’re walking back to your containerized housing, what they call the CHU. That’s protected by these hesco barriers, which are filled with dirt and stuff like that to keep any shrapnel. Anyways, one could hit, and you don’t know where it hit necessarily. It was fairly close, but didn’t rock your world, so you’re good. I mean, I’ve had to call up. I had a team of sergeants that I was in charge of that would go out and repair these radios.

Andrew Schultz:
There are several times where I had to call up and see whether those guys had… Because there’s several people that died on a base or something like that. We had make sure that our guy was okay and all that. So, I mean, that stuff kind of jerks you in. Of course, we’re dealing with division operation center. So, we’re watching a lot of stuff that happens. We’re seeing a lot of stuff. It’s actually a really good point when we started talking, I’m not saying whether I’d PTSD or not. But when we started talking about that, the battlefield has changed from what it used to be. It used to be there’s this what they call the FLOT, Forward Line of Troops. Bad guys are over there, and good guys are over here. They’re going to clash and something’s going to happen. Now, it’s kind of all around.

Andrew Schultz:
From that standpoint, the safety of the troops and the equipment stuff that they have is I mean, it’s massive. I mean, literally a guy can get shot with an AK-47. If he gets hit in the plate and fall down and he might have a bruise and be a little bit rattled or whatever, but like he’s good, or they can get wounded in other senses and still make it home because of the medical that we have and how fast response time is and all those things that came up. So, what ended up happening is this smaller portion of people go into battle and experiences being a thing. So, maybe in the past, it was like 80% of people on the front line and 20% people in support.

Andrew Schultz:
Now, it’s more like 20% of the people on frontline and 80% in support. So, you concentrate all these experiences into this small number of people, but what’s important is that small number of people, they only see what’s right in front of them and how horrific it may be. The people in the back don’t necessarily see that, but instead of seeing just one or being in one individual scenario, you got all these people that they’re fed information from every area. They’re looking at all these or they’re hearing the response come into these facilities that are making the responses to help these guys out, but they’re doing it for 5 minutes or 10 different areas and all week long and working longer hours too, 18 hour days in some cases doing this stuff. I mean, it just takes a toll on you.

Andrew Schultz:
I mean, even for what we did, I think the most I’ve ever worked was when I was in Iraq. I did 400 days in a row or something ridiculous like that. All of them were 18-hour days. Some of them were 20-hour days. So, that kind of stuff has a toll on the human body in the end. So, you come back and you have some fatigue issues and things you got to figure out how to reset, probably the biggest thing aside from the pills they try giving you or these other things. It’s just exercise, eat right, and try to keep moving.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that affect you now in what you’re doing, that whole experience? I mean, it sounds like there’s definitely some bad, definitely some good as well with the leadership stuff that you were able to do.

Andrew Schultz:
Now, there’s massive amount of humility with people in general. Especially some of the stuff I’ve learned over the last several years, it’s like the world will try and tell you that there’s all these things coming up or they might have priorities for you. But priorities are big, being able to pick and choose which ones are the right priority, where you’re going to put your time and energy, and where you’re not going to put your time and energy. That allows you to get a lot of stuff done. There was, at the time, probably self-judgmental, things like that. I think being self-judgmental on anything is not going to get you going in the right place.

Andrew Schultz:
So, sometimes just dropping that expectation that you’ve created in your mind and just trying to wake up, do the best thing you can in the moment. List your priorities and just keep rocking and rolling. That’s probably how it’s affected me the most but having a really wide experience background as far as that’s concerned and some of the other things I’ve done. I find it funny, especially when I talk to either soldiers or other people. They say, “Well, I’ve done all these things, but I can’t do that, because I don’t have the experience in that.” But the reality is, is those are the backgrounds… Everybody has a really unique background. All of those things when you’re trying to build a team, they come into play.

Andrew Schultz:
So, having all these unique backgrounds put together, you can get some really interesting solutions for and build some teams that have a really strong from taking all these parts and pieces of their lives that they’ve learned and trying to get them to work in unison towards a single goal. So, I think that that kind of realization is good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys do customed Viticulture, and it’s called Brothers in Farms, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is kind of an homage to your military background.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah. One of the questions I asked is “How can we help veterans and stuff like that?” One of my answers to that was okay, let me build something that’s as strong as possible, and then we’re going to start integrating in ways to help service veterans as they get out and all of that. I’ve got some buddies that I met through the school and stuff like that that I went to that are doing some great things in Washington for veterans. So, we’ve been reaching out to those. We may start doing some scholarships for some of these vets that come back to help ease any of the cost and stuff like that as they go through school.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can farming be a good thing to do when you get out? You talked about having that time where you kind of needed to reset.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, first thing I started doing was growing a garden. For veterans that are dealing with stuff… I also picked up a dog too, have had a dog by my side for the last 11 years now that I’ve been out, or it’s been 11 years. Anyways, having something that you need to go out and water and take care of and something that says, “Hey, there’s something out there that’s bigger than you,” that gives you humility and keeps you less focused on yourself and more focused on the things that need to happen. Her name’s Blue. The most inspiring thing I learned during that hard period of my life was every day, she would come in and she would eat the exact same dog food every single day. She was just as happy, if not happier to eat it at that moment than any other time. So, that’s inspiring to see.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of dog is Blue?

Andrew Schultz:
She’s a German Shorthaired Pointer.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys do customed Viticulture, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean?

Andrew Schultz:
Essentially, we do custom farming for clients. So, if a company or person owns a property and they aren’t necessarily interested in taking all the liabilities and all that stuff to grow the grapes or maybe they want a specific product off of that property, my company comes in. We offer the solution to do everything on that property for them and say for doing the sale of grapes essentially everything to get it to harvest and then we harvest it. Their clients come and pick it up and take it back to the winery. Some of the clients are real discerning, and some are less discerning. We take a lot of data and stuff like that, which is different. We’re trying to integrate the newer world into what we do. Part of that is the communications and the computer science and stuff like that.

Andrew Schultz:
So, we built databases in the background of the business to deal with the payroll stuff, and legalities, and chemical records, and all that stuff. So, literally, my guys are going out. If we’re taking a shoot length measurement on a property, they’re doing it on an iPad, and it goes in. Literally the end of the week, we print off a PDF report, send that to the client, shows them exactly what’s going on the property and why we’re making those decisions. So, it’s pretty cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, these are people who want to be able to own a vineyard kind of thing.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup, some are people, some are companies. A lot of them already exist in the marketplace, but as labor price is obviously going up, we’ve taken $1.5 increase this year alone. But over the last five, six years,, we’ve went up about $3 or $4. So, labor gets pretty expensive. For us to come in and say we’re farming 450 acres currently, but we build a crew as such that those people are on and off that property. The tractors are on and off those properties. So, a company or an individual doesn’t have to go in and buy an $80,000 tractor and use it for 500 hours on a property. We can use it for 1,000 hours between all of our properties.

Andrew Schultz:
We might have three or four tractors and have the implements and things like that to do it, not only that, but the labor to be able to go in there and get things done in a timely fashion. So, essentially, we’re leveraging time and creating efficiency through scale. So, several small guys can get a cost that would be economical while we’re taking the brunt of the work and moving it around to properties on an economical level.

Dillon Honcoop:
At that level, it’s just like the custom farming I grew up around. Actually, when I was quite young, my dad was a custom farmer. I mean, his version was he had a tractor and some dirt work implements. He’d to go out and work people’s fields for them, because they were maybe a small dairy farm. They couldn’t afford to have that tractor and implements. He couldn’t either if he was just doing that small amount, but because he was driving on… Yeah, same thing.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Spreading that around and letting somebody else kind of deal with that part of it. Does that put more risk on you though without the reward of being the owner?

Andrew Schultz:
I think if you guys listen to much of my story, I’m not really that worried about risk. I’ve always been kind of a risk taker. I’m pretty good at hedging downsides. The biggest thing as far as risk is concerned is I probably am at some larger amount of risk, but we do a lot of things to hedge those. I mean, we have contracts in place that are put in by attorneys and stuff like that to make sure that that I’m hedging on my bets in the right direction. Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of money floating out there, and making payroll, and stuff like that. I mean, it’s a real deal. That’s why when we look at the values of why we do what we do or how we do what we do, we go back to the original values and that’s what we make decisions on.

Andrew Schultz:
The biggest thing is providing a product to our customers that people like or they want but more importantly, it’s communication and it’s being real with the people. The people being either those in the management level of my business or the people that are actually out doing the work. We’re trying to provide a really solid job for them. From that standpoint, there’s definitely jobs out there that they can get in farming. As the cost increases, what we’ve seen for these other businesses, we’re actually driving a lot of employees from tree fruit or whatever towards us or operations like us. Because as that price increases, those farmers are in many cases asking those employees to do more or by the piece and faster.

Andrew Schultz:
Ours isn’t necessarily about that, we’re more about quality. We’re trying to give them as much work as possible throughout the year. People in general, it doesn’t matter whether they’re working in a field or whether they’re working for business, they want to work for somebody that’s organized. Whatever they do in the field, somebody doesn’t come in and make another decision and say, “Undo that and go do this.” It gets real confusing for somebody. So, those are the types of things that we try to provide to the workers. So, we’ve been successful driving people towards us in a short labor economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How does that go? Are you able to find enough people?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, I mean, we just turned down a couple guys the other day, because we just picked up four to help us with some stuff that we’re trying to get off our plate this spring. We had guys that contact us last year and I said, “Hey, we work in tree fruit. We’d like to come over to you guys because things are getting real tight over there and we see what you guys are doing.” By and large, a lot of these families at workforce, they all go to the same church locally. So, everybody talks behind closed doors, and they find out what’s going on where. So, our perception is good from that standpoint.

Andrew Schultz:
Right now, we’re capping the business at 50 people for the time being, and then we’re going to walk over that 50-person line as soon as I feel comfortable to. But for this year, based on how fast we’ve grown, what I want to do, and what I am doing is we’re investing back into the infrastructure of the business as I build out the administrative side. That’s going to create a really nice concrete, solid launchpad, and then we’re going to ramp it up from there.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future look like? I know, the wine community here in Washington is kind of coming of age from what I’ve heard and read. That it was growing like crazy because it used to be a California thing, and then it became a Washington thing, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Washington on the world stage has been doing amazing. There’s one major reason behind that amongst others, but one of the major reasons behind that is essentially we don’t have very much rain over here in this part of the state. Six inches per year is probably the average. Some cases, we have a little bit more. Some case, we have a little bit less. But again, we go back to what’s the number one thing that’s going to improve quality and it’s water, how much water you have there. So, if you don’t have enough water to grow a great plant, then you get to choose whatever you want to put on it. That’s going to change quality in the end.

Andrew Schultz:
As a case in point, first irrigation in many cases for say Napa Valley is 7/15, so say July 15th or something like that. They’ve already grown up, set the fruits, fruits going in close to Verizon at that point. For us, if we don’t irrigate that grape, by the time it even gets into bloom, we’re not going to have any bloom. So, we get to choose how fast and how long those canes grow, which is going to give us a canopy density not only reduce cost, but canopy density. From a canopy density standpoint, you’re going to get more sunlight into grapes on average year in and year out. If somebody managed to do irrigation correctly, we have the ability to hit really tight brackets on how big those berries are and what kind of concentration levels they have. That’s been playing out.

Andrew Schultz:
As the farmers get better and they have over the last 10 or 11 years, we’ve seen a lot of really good farmers come out and start improving some of their operations, even putting in some of these new trellising system stuff like that that kind of naturally gets the grapes to where they want to be. I think Washington’s got more 90-point wines in this state than any other wine region in the world on a yearly basis is what I’ve been told. That’s massive, that means that we’re just creating a massive amount of really good wines every year. That’s hard for anybody to go back and say, “Well, knock that area.” So, we’re kind of emerging this big power. I think it’s fantastic from a quality standpoint, which is fantastic.

Dillon Honcoop:
But some things are starting to slow down as far as the market for Washington wines, right?

Andrew Schultz:
It’s not just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Or changing.

Andrew Schultz:
It’s not just the Washington market. Essentially, we had several really good years or high crop quantity years. So, the bulk market is full right now. But based on some of the economists that we’ve looked at typically or I’ve talked to or listened to, it happens every so often. They only last two to three years or something like that, and then we bounce back from them. We actually went a fairly long time without that. Although we’re feeling a little bit of pain right now as far as those things are concerned, not a concern over the long run in my opinion.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is part of it what variety is cool at a given time and the amount of time that it takes to get a variety up and producing which is years, right, that the market may have moved on to something else that’s trendy?

Andrew Schultz:
When you start talking about time for planning and investment and stuff like that, in general, I look at crops that you can get a full crop within one year, or say even 18 months or two years or something like that. Typically, those crops have huge swings in varieties and changes and stuff like that, because they’re a lot cheaper and faster. Not they’re necessarily cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than say a vineyard pulling out or something like that. But hops is a big one or has been. Now, there’s some reasons why that market stabilized more than it has in the last 400 or 500 years of its history. With the microbrew’s taken over as opposed to a lot of the large farmers in quantity and volume used.

Andrew Schultz:
But in the grapes, I mean, yeah, it takes three years to get up and get a partial crop. By the time you’ve taken all that cost and about the 25,000 or 30,000 an acre to input that stuff, you’ve got a significant investment. So, most people that are planting are planting safe bets. There are people that will plant out there and they’ll plant some funky stuff. Some of it goes overwhelmed. Some of it doesn’t. Some of it gets changed. But yeah, by and large, when a property goes in, people will make some pretty safe bets as to what they’re going to put in.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the trending for righties over the last few years and how has that been evolving?

Andrew Schultz:
I mean Cab is king. That’s kind of the nature of the beast in the hot wine growing areas of the world. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the cooler growing areas, but Chardonnay is still in the warm growing areas for a while. So, those really haven’t changed a whole lot from the standpoint of what varieties there are. The big thing has changed probably over the last 5 or 10 years is the number of clones that we’ve got that we have of those varieties. So, there’s a lot of opinions floating out there about was it clone 8 or is it close whatever, you name it. I mean, there’s tons of them out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
All that stuff the consumer never sees, because they just see, “I’m buying a bottle of Cabernet.”

Andrew Schultz:
Yup, yeah. We do those tastings and stuff like that to see if there’s any reliability there in one year or the next. Some of them are non-perceptible or would probably be largely non-perceptible to standard customer that’s out there buying it. But essentially a winemaker, the biggest part of their palate or what they’re going to create is… I mean, obviously, they could do it from a clonal standpoint, but the difference is less significant there than if they just chose different growing regions.

Andrew Schultz:
So, you might buy something off of Red Mountain, which is really hot growing region. You might go down to Benton City and buy something else that you’re going to put in that blend that’s maybe a different variety. It might keep a little bit better acid down there. You’re going to blend it with something you get from Walla Walla or maybe higher elevation or down at White Salmon or something like that. That’s one of the cool things about Washington is we have so many microclimates. There’s a lot of really hot and cool places.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what you mean when you talk about a hot growing region and a cool growing region that can just be down the road here, basically.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s two hours right now from here to White Salmon, and we can drop the number of heat units that is received in a year by half.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Schultz:
We’ve got 33,000, 35,000, or 38,000, or whatever the long term is here. We can go down there, it’s literally like 1,500 or 1,600. That affects the types of varieties that you can grow and ripen and changes to season parameters. There’s this heat that’s accumulated over time, but probably the best way to look at what these different growing regions can do is what time bud break happens and then what those temperatures are out or like throughout that period of that grape’s life every day on average, the highs and lows. That’s really going to affect what happens with that grape.

Andrew Schultz:
So, if you have Cabernet Sauvignon that comes out on some property two weeks earlier than on another property, every temperature for the rest of the season is going to be at a different part of that particular plant’s growing cycle. That’s going to end up making the flavor different in the end. So, there’s going to be different parameters that come with that. When a winemaker goes out there, he’s picking and choosing these regions. In many cases, if they’re doing a blend, sometimes they do bend your designates from a single vineyard or something like that.

Andrew Schultz:
But for the most part, he’s going out there and he’s picking Cabernet Sauvignon from three maybe particular locations or maybe it’s three particular growers that he really trusts. And then he’s going to put something together for us customers that hopefully they’ll enjoy.

Announcer 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Doesn’t that change the way you think about Washington wine? I just want to go have some now. Since that conversation that we had, which by the way was pre-COVID, it wasn’t time yet to talk about the impacts that COVID had on the future. It’d be interesting to go back and talk with Andrew now. But it just makes you think different things about the wine that you’re drinking. Andrew Schultz, awesome guy. We get into more big picture stuff next week, so you won’t want to miss that one either. Make sure to check out our website, realfoodrealpeople.org. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow us on social media as well.

Announcer 2:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org and by dairy farmers of Washington supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Chelsea Putnam | #025 06/01/2020

Although she's an artist and a teacher, Chelsea Putnam only really found herself when she came back to her family's farm. This is her story of renewal and passion for stewarding the land and producing food.

Transcript

Chelsea Putnam:
I had nothing. I had our suitcases and a few things, but no job, no idea what I’m doing. And so I did what I knew and that was to go work in the orchards and to help establish a new farm.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Finding rebirth and renewal on the farm. It’s something that a lot of people have found in their personal stories of farming. And this week we hear from an artist and a teacher who is also a farmer and now started a farmer’s market. She’s got so much to share in such a cool story. Chelsea Putnam is her name and she has kind of a traditional Washington farming background in tree fruit, but then they also grow lavender and have tourism and lodging on their farm. It’s a really diverse perspective that she brings and a cool story where she never expected to be a farmer. And here she is and she loves it. We’ve got a lot to get to. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People podcast. And let’s jump right in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about what it is you guys do here. What is this Trinity gardens thing and what do you guys do?

Chelsea Putnam:
There’s a lot of components to it. We started five years ago and with the idea of just planting some lavender plants, my dad’s an orchardist and my mom’s a retired nurse. And she got bored, as you-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that how she would characterize it?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. She got bored being retired and they drove by this property and it was too good of a deal to pass up, but nothing was on here except for the mobile home and a shop. And so they tossed some ideas around about what to plant, if to plant anything. And we always went to Sequim to visit my grandparents, where lavender capital of the world and we loved it. We always loved it. And so my mom and dad decided lavender, let’s plant some lavender on this property. And so year by year we planted a couple 1,000 plants each year and every year we were like, “How can we generate more revenue from this and not just have some random lavender plants in the ground? Let’s get people out here. Maybe we can make it a venue. Maybe we can hold some events like Sequim farms do.”

Chelsea Putnam:
And so it’s just evolved into this extensive venue where we rent out accommodations on Airbnb. We have a shop on site where we sell all of our handcrafted lavender products. We distill, we steam distill, not alcohol, just lavender essential oil. We will custom distill for other farmers too because the distillation setup is quite expensive.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the difference between steam distillation and using alcohol to extract the essential oil?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, that’s a great question. The steam distillation seems to be from what we’ve talked to other farmers about the way to distill the lavender to get the essential oil. Even though it is an expensive setup, it’s one of the cheaper ways to extract the essential oil or 100% oil from the lavender. And I really don’t know much about any other distillation techniques, so I can’t really speak on it too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, yeah. That was going to be my question, like what do you all do with lavender? And technically we’re cheating a little bit because this is Real Food Real People, but you can’t really eat lavender.

Chelsea Putnam:
You can.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes, you can.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. I’m learning something new already.

Chelsea Putnam:
Amongst the other things that we do on the farm, there are many uses of the lavender itself. We have five different varieties out here on the farm and they are all the same therapeutic qualities, but they have different scent profiles and flavor profiles. Some are really good for using for culinary purposes, whereas some are better for just drying or using as a fresh bouquet or distilling to use as essential oil and products. On the farm we have two really good varieties. And what you would do to use lavender for food is you could dry the buds or use them fresh and a lot of people will use it as a tea, help them sleep at night. You could-

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it taste like?

Chelsea Putnam:
It depends on the variety.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know if I’ve ever tasted lavender.

Chelsea Putnam:
We’ll have to do like a taste test for dry buds.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess, yeah.

Chelsea Putnam:
The ones that are really good for culinary purposes, they are sweeter. Some of them have a vanilla note to them. And so of course if you use it in moderation, you can definitely overdo it. If you overdo it, it’s got that soapy, tastes like you’re eating lavender soap or something. That also comes out in the variety that you choose to use for culinary purposes. But have you ever had a dessert with lavender in it or lavender ice-cream or?

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know if I have.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh my gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

Chelsea Putnam:
Maybe, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe I’m just not that sophisticated.

Chelsea Putnam:
That could be it. You did grow up on a farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Ouch.

Chelsea Putnam:
So did I.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, explain that. Where did you grow up?

Chelsea Putnam:
I grew up in East Wenatchee and we would spend our summers driving out here, working on our apple and cherry orchards where my dad, that’s his primary.

Dillon Honcoop:
Out here being the George area?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh yeah, the George area. Yeah. And we still have a couple of those farms and we still work on them. Yeah, so primarily grew up working in tree fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. What were your jobs as a kid?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh my gosh, so many. At 13, actually my dad started teaching me to do payroll, which was cool. I got to learn a lot of the backside of it, the number side. But then labor wise we would do a lot of swamping, which means our pickers will pick cherries in their lugs, put the lugs down and move on to the next tree. And then we would come through and pick up all those lugs and put them on the blue line, which takes all the bins and the lugs and goes and loads them up into the truck.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s nice, easy leisurely work. Yeah?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, sure, sure, sure. Yeah. I think I still have lower back pain from when I was 13.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, wow.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. But as we got older, we got more responsibilities and now instead of breaking our backs, picking up lugs, so my brother will probably drive the blue line or get to operate the equipment and then I’ll go through in quality control and manage what the pickers are picking. And things like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you still do all the tree fruit too?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the lavender farm?

Chelsea Putnam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot.

Chelsea Putnam:
I know. And in my spare time do pottery and teach.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re going to get into that.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re going to hear all about it. But okay, so what all kinds of tree fruits do you guys do now?

Chelsea Putnam:
So we just do apples and cherries now. At one point we did pears as well. However, my dad does not like how tedious pears can be. They’re delicate, so we just stick to cherries and apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the name of that farm?

Chelsea Putnam:
We operate under, we call Putnam Family Farms because we have three farms. We have Trinity Gardens Lavender Farm, obviously the lavender. And then we have French Camp, which was the original orchard. And then we have Liberty Ridge, which was the second ridge to come into the family.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many acres total?

Chelsea Putnam:
We’re considered a micro-farm with just under 200 acres of cherries and apples. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which to a lot of people they think of micro-farm, they’re like a half acre. Right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
A micro-farm just under 200 acres.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. And that’s the tree fruit industry. It’s just growing so rapidly, especially out in the basin. We have farms that are just hundreds of acres. You drive one straight road and it’s just all red delicious apples or all golden delicious or whatever they might be.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you guys bring in the harvest? You have to bring a lot of workers in to get that done?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Well, the beauty in being a smaller farm and established here, we haven’t really needed to take advantage of the Federal H-2A housing employees, recruiting them from out of the country. We have a lot of families that come back year after year after year. In fact, I’ve known some of these families since I was a child. We have just a rapport. It helps to have a great field manager, who’s been with my dad since they both started farming, so 30 years or so. We have a lot of local workers from Quincy, Georgia area, Royal City, Moses Lake.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about on the lavender farm? How much labor does that take? How big is the actual lavender part?

Chelsea Putnam:
We have just over three acres planted in lavender and we don’t hire anybody. It’s just us. My brother and I and my dad still does. We’ll hand harvest the lavender when it’s time to cut for distillation, usually around August, September timeframe. And we just come out here before the sun comes up because the bees wake up at a certain temperature and they swarm the place. And so we try to get up before them.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know all about that from raspberry farm youth and being a little bit allergic to honeybees.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, no. Really?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It doesn’t go very well.

Chelsea Putnam:
No, I think I’ve only been stung once out here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, you’re lucky.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, I just don’t mess with them. I just let them work.

Dillon Honcoop:
The whole thing is you need to stay calm because they don’t like it when you’re worked up, but I can’t stay calm around them. So frustrating. My dad would always say, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” I’m like, “Dad, I don’t know. I don’t want to go out to the field. If I get stung I’ll be feeling sick for a few days.” “You’ll be fine.”

Chelsea Putnam:
I was just going to ask, how allergic are you? Do you need an EpiPen or anything?

Dillon Honcoop:
They made me carry one for a while. I never had anaphylactic shock reaction, but I would swell like crazy.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, well it’s a good thing you didn’t come out here in June and July when everything was in bloom.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. But I am used to being around them still, trying to maintain my chill.

Chelsea Putnam:
Maintain your chill. That’s funny.

Dillon Honcoop:
Going back to growing up, East Wenatchee, working in fruit. Then what was your plan? Did you want to be a farmer?

Chelsea Putnam:
No, no, no. I was like so far, my ideas of having a career path was so far from farming. And I don’t know why. It wasn’t my passion. It’s not like I hated it. I love coming out here in the summers and being a part of the family business. I wanted to be an art teacher. I went off to college, got my art degree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you go to college?

Chelsea Putnam:
Pacific Lutheran University. Little liberal arts school in Parkland. Technically Tacoma is the address. But yeah. My parents weren’t too thrilled when I was like, “I’m going to major in art.” Like, “What are you going to do with your life?”

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did you do then? You got your degree.

Chelsea Putnam:
I did, I did. Actually, right when I was applying for a MFA programs because really my goal was and still is to be a college professor, teach fine arts at a university. I was applying for master’s programs and I got pregnant with my son. And so I made the choice to put that path on hold, the path to MFA. And I decided to get married and go be a mom to a sweet little boy and live the military wife life. We went to Anchorage and then we lived in North Carolina. From North Carolina we actually separated, my ex-husband and I moved home because it was my only support system. Home is here in George where my parents had just bought a lavender farm or a plot of land to be a lavender farm and the orchards. And so I had nothing.

Chelsea Putnam:
I had our suitcases and a few things, but no job, no idea what I’m doing. And so I did what I knew and that was to go work in the orchards and to help establish a new farm. Through this interesting … It was very therapeutic, I think the lavender farm especially. I have a real emotional attachment to the lavender farm because it became this planting of life and growth and newness, right in a time where I needed all that redirection and new growth. And so as we planted the lavender and it evolved, I’ve seen over the last five years, it’s been a symbol of how I’ve established here and I never thought I would, in agriculture and many other aspects of my life.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like going through all of that? Were you scared?

Chelsea Putnam:
No, I don’t think I ever remember being fearful of the massive amount of change, but it’s because I had the support of my parents. They’ve been my absolute rock and foundation to even the disappointing decision to major in art. They were like, “Okay, well if that’s really what you want.” That’s the approach they’ve always taken. They’re just open armed people and they greet everybody with love and support. And of course they’re going to do that for their daughter and grandchild. They’re like, “We don’t actually care about you. We just want Michael in our lives.” I never really felt intimidated. I still wanted to teach art, hence the reason why we’re sitting in the studio because before I got the job at the school district, I built this with my dad and decided to start teaching art to small groups as a small business. And it brought more people out to the lavender farm where we could entice them and educate them on all things lavender.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you do art and ceramics? Is that kind of your big thing?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, clay is my big thing for sure. Yeah. I’ll do all the other art forms and I teach all the other art forms. But clay, I don’t know, there’s something full circle about clay. You can make something sculptural and abstract and create something wonderful from your imagination and try to sell it for lots of money, if someone’s interested. My favorite thing to do is throwing on the wheel and making functional pottery because that’s the full circle piece, I think where you’re taking something from the ground, from the earth and creating it into a form that’s usable and you can eat out of, you can drink out of, you can serve people and sit around a table and enjoy as just what it is. Yeah. The cat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that the cat? Where is the cat?

Chelsea Putnam:
Outside.

Dillon Honcoop:
I hear a cat and the cat wanted to join the podcast. That’s awesome.

Chelsea Putnam:
I know, I got all distracted too. I was like, “Wait, sound like a baby crying.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s funny.

Chelsea Putnam:
We have two boy cats and they’re absolutely wild out there. They’re the farm cats. They get all the gophers and their rats and my mom likes to feed them. She said, “Oh, they can’t starve.” I’m like, “Well, if you feed them, then they’re not going to get the gophers. You have to starve them a little bit.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What a cruel person.

Chelsea Putnam:
They’re fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re going to be hungry.

Chelsea Putnam:
Did you see them? They’re kind of fat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think they’re doing all right.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, they’re fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
You love the art?

Chelsea Putnam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
And you teach now. Talk about what that experience has been like, becoming a teacher.

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, it’s been one of those experiences where you really just don’t know until you’re in it. There’s no amount of education or training that can prepare you to be in front of 30 kids six times a day that are in middle school, seventh and eighth grade. I get to teach anywhere from 11 to 13-year-old kids. I didn’t think that I would just absolutely adore this age range because like I said, my goal was to go onto college and it still is. Now, I think I envision myself being in this age range to gain experience for a good 10 years or so, at least. Unless, I don’t know. It’s kind of funny. We make all these plans for our lives and then like, I don’t know the universe or God or whatever you believe in, likes to throw monkey wrenches in just for-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s the story of COVID too, right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes. And so this is my first year teaching and it’s like all this like amped up, amped up, doing all this stuff and working until exhaustion actually ruined a relationship I was in. Maybe I let it, but [inaudible 00:18:38]. I just really devoted all my passion and time into being good at this job and I could, because all the farms are seasonal. It works out perfectly. Go teach in the winter time, come out here in the spring and fall or excuse me, spring in summer. And it was just like a perfect little, the missing puzzle piece. Anyways, I just poured everything of myself into this and then it was like, “Oh, this pandemic is happening. Schools are closed for six weeks.”

Chelsea Putnam:
And I was like, “Oh, that’s sad, but I’ll see you in six weeks, it’ll be a good break.” And then without even getting to say bye or anything to all these kids, they’re just like, “Yeah, actually we’re not going back to school.” And it has been interesting, absolutely interesting and emotional and all the words.

Dillon Honcoop:
Emotional how?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, it wasn’t at first. I actually didn’t realize the emotional impact it actually had on me until recently. Emotional in a lot of ways. I see the kids and how they grow up in our area. We’re a low income perverse area and we have about, I think it’s about 85 to 87% of our students are under the poverty line. And so when they started talking about this distance learning thing and having kids do online learning, like we have kids that live in houses with 10, 15 people and they’re not even housed well. They’re single wide mobile homes. They don’t have internet or a phone that they can Zoom meeting their teacher. Are you kidding me?

Chelsea Putnam:
It was just so privileged to just be like, “Oh, they can just distance-learn from their laptops.” And so we had this big push on getting kids free meals. We have kids they don’t eat unless they’re at school. They don’t get food. And which like just makes me so … Oh, I could just go into it. It was really emotional trying to reach these kids and not only checking on their welfare and their living situations and, “Are you getting food? Are you getting your basic fundamental needs to survive because we’re not going to get to see you for months and months and months?” But now we’re trying to get them laptops, hotspots, things like that to get them on board with this technology and learning and getting them information. And then it’s just been confusing for everybody because there’s so many questions and it feels like there’s never an actual solid answer. And as soon as there’s an answer, something else changes. And it’s a domino effect of more questions and no answers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you heard anything about next year?

Chelsea Putnam:
There’s a lot of speculation and talk about not going back to school at the beginning of the year. Yeah. I really try to not invest a lot of my time and energy into planning for that because just like I said, everything just keeps changing. Everything just keeps changing.

Dillon Honcoop:
What has COVID meant for you guys here on the farm?

Chelsea Putnam:
It has impacted us a lot more than I thought it would, negatively as far as generating revenue. We’re eight miles from the Gorge Amphitheater. That’s where a lot of our people come that rent the Airbnbs here on the lavender farm, which then directly correlates to customers in our shop. People learning about it, buying our products, whatever. The cancellation of concerts has decreased.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would have never thought of that.

Chelsea Putnam:
Right. Oh my gosh. Also, we can mark up the prices a lot because there’s nowhere to stay around here. There’s nowhere. They are building a hotel in George. Did you see that?

Dillon Honcoop:
I did.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. And a Five Guys Burger.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I did not see that.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
In George Washington.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Imagine that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Very cool.

Chelsea Putnam:
We’ve noticed a decline in our normal clientele, our normal foot traffic, but we’ve gotten a lot of longer stays out here, which is nice. People working in the area for a month or two weeks at a time. But we haven’t gotten a lot of people just coming and visiting us, which is so frustrating because we paid a crap ton of money to get signs on the freeway and we waited an entire year to get them up and they got up this season right before we opened. And then it was like, “Oh great. That was kind of for nothing because no one wants to break the rules.”

Chelsea Putnam:
And we have some people coming by. As far as the orchards though, that’s the one that surprised me that it’s already impacting us because sales have gone down drastically of produce and food everywhere. You hear about all these potatoes and onions getting dumped because all the restaurants are in business. There’s a huge portion of the market that is no longer buying produce and we’re seeing it in our apple prices because it’s our last year’s crop being bought now. And it’s been very disappointing.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s too bad.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, it is. It is. Not to mention, it’s a really light crop for cherries this year, all around the basin. And so couple that with just mother nature and then the economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think is going to happen?

Chelsea Putnam:
I think that my dad’s going to do a lot of praying. Yeah. A lot of praying because at this point it just takes one bad storm and the small crop gets demolished and then bad season.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big are cherries versus apples for you guys?

Chelsea Putnam:
How big are they?

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as like how much-

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, like the size? As like smaller?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, like as a percentage of your operation.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, I see, I see. We’re converting slowly to more cherries than apples. But right now is pretty close to equal and we have a range of varieties within each fruit. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Right?

Chelsea Putnam:
I know and that’s just kind of farming in its nature though because we’re always dealing with the unknown. Looking at the 10-Day Weather Forecast, preparing for a sudden frost or some crazy. Out here in the basin, the weather patterns are very interesting and we’ll get hail. We get in a bad spring and rain, not a whole lot, but it’ll happen in the spring. We don’t have a lot of rainfall, but it just takes one of those bad storms and it’s all gone. Where our farms are, we see this really interesting weather pattern where it will actually see storms just go around us. It’s very frightening looking at these black thunderclouds and we’re like, “Oh no, is it going to go over us?” There’s something about just the geography and the wind and then it has to do with the Gorge and then the mountains. It just skates around us.

Dillon Honcoop:
Weird.

Chelsea Putnam:
We watch it go around and then go over to [Afrada 00:26:38], or Moses like. We’re like, “Well, it sucks to be them.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But what if you want those storm? What if you need the irrigation?

Chelsea Putnam:
I don’t think that’s ever an issue. No, we never want a storm.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
Unless for some reason we ran out of water, but I don’t think that’ll happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How do you guys irrigate your crops?

Chelsea Putnam:
That would be a really good question for my dad, because he has this really cool nerdy interest in the way this … We have like a federal water project that happened out here, but we get our water from canals. Most people think, “Oh, they live right next to the Columbia River. They probably just get their water from the Columbia River.” No, we get it from lakes farther away from here that they have situated to irrigate the basin through canals, a series of canal systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have to like do the tubes and stuff to get the water out of the canals or like how-

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. In fact, we have it here. I could show you a very small scale version of that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. We do like floating the canals in the summer though. That’s fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your own lazy river?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you go too far though and-

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, yeah, you don’t want to go under the road. There’s spots where they stop. Yeah. You have to just get out of it at some point.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s interesting that you brought up the Gorge in George. Everybody knows the Gorge. Right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would have never thought that would have that kind of impact on your farm. What’s that like having that huge concert space in this little tiny community?

Chelsea Putnam:
I’ll speak personally first. It’s freaking awesome. If you know the right people, you can get in with the right crowd and cheaper tickets or maybe the tickets all didn’t itself. Here’s a couple.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
It is amazingly fun. We all look forward to it. We get groups of friends together, we go meet down there. We’ll camp down there even though we all live like 15 minutes away. And it is such a blast. It’s a great time. Then economically it helps our community big time. Who drives to Quincy? I mean, not semis basically. It’s not like we have a main freeway coming through here. I-90 just misses it by 15 miles. We have a really small town with some cool things to do, but not a lot of people coming through to experience them. In the summertime, when the Gorge is up and running on the weekends, we have people coming down and staying at Crescent Bar and staying in those like little river side towns, like Sunland.

Chelsea Putnam:
They’re not towns they’re like basically towns. Sunland and coming to Cave B and coming out here to do stuff like, “Oh, let’s check out this random lavender farm and cruise into Quincy and get something to eat.” So, we have this really cool rotation of more touristy people, but feeding our economy in a different way than we get the other months of the year.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Who’s the best show at the Gorge?

Chelsea Putnam:
There’s rotation, but watershed’s always fun as a whole, just as a whole experience. Even if it’s not my favorite person playing, it’s the atmosphere. That’s pretty cool. The best show I’ve seen there was … Well, who am I thinking of? Have you ever heard of Shovels & Rope?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, I haven’t.

Chelsea Putnam:
They’re newer-ish. They played. Kings of Leon was really good. Let’s see. There’s some that I only remember part of.

Dillon Honcoop:
I won’t ask.

Chelsea Putnam:
I went home early. I have not honestly seen a bad show there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dave Matthews is famous for playing. Does he do in there every year still?

Chelsea Putnam:
Every year. There was one year he didn’t, but he came back from retirement or whatever.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it like his favorite place to do a show?

Chelsea Putnam:
He’ll like rent out the entire Cave B area just for him and his crew and his family.

Dillon Honcoop:
Cave B is like a little resort?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. It’s a winery that’s grown over the years. Interestingly enough, Cave B originally owned by a surgeon and his wife. They had the original stage where the Gorge Amphitheater is now. They had their Cave B winery and then they had the stage where it was so small, but they would have people come and then they got bought out by Live Nation or whatever. I think it was Live Nation or maybe there was a company before Live Nation. And then it grew to what it is now. There’s a 26,000 people occupancy is huge. And so Cave B sits right next to the Gorge Amphitheater, still is just separated by a chain link fence. And they have an in where there’s a nice fancy restaurant. Then they have all these yachts out there looking out on the Gorge. They have these cliff houses and now they have in that area, it’s not owned by Cave B.

Chelsea Putnam:
Also, they have a winery with a tasting room, really good wine. And it’s gone through ownership changes where actually it’s now separated the winery is separate from the in now whereas it didn’t use to be, but they have these kind of tiny houses, not really tiny houses. They’re just a really smaller version of a modern looking apartment. And they’re all separated. And they’re just separated probably by, I don’t know, 20, 30 feet. And there’s a few of them out there. People have bought in them and rent them out on Airbnb for people going to the concert. It’s kind of turned into this little Villa resort thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think I’ve looked out in that direction at a concert, but not like, “What is that over there?”

Chelsea Putnam:
One a lot of those things are kind of hidden is, kind of hilly or whatever. And you have to drive down in it to really, to really get it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So many people have been right here in your neighborhood basically.

Chelsea Putnam:
Don’t go anywhere other than Cave B and the Gorge.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s crazy. What’s on your a playlist right now. What are you listening to these days?

Chelsea Putnam:
Good question. I’m on this kick. I listen to Pandora a lot and I go between podcasts and music. And when I start feeling a little like weird, I’m like, “Oh, I just need to listen to some music.” So I have my two favorite is Jack Johnson in Pandora station, which plays some really good upbeat stuff I like to listen to when I’m in the studio. I have a highly suspect, which is a little harder. And I like to listen and like scream sing along in my car or in the shower or whatever. And then actually a third one being when I’m just like chilling Iron & Wine. Have you heard of that?

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh yeah.

Chelsea Putnam:
I love, love, love them. And no matter what mood I’m in, I can turn them on. And the whole station’s good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Very chill.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. We’ve got like a chill middle of the road unlike super hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’ve got a lot of tattoos?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into that?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, when I was 18 I made some regrettable decisions. Yeah. It wasn’t so much a rebel. I didn’t go out partying or anything. I just went and got tattoos without permission, but I was 18.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you didn’t need permission?

Chelsea Putnam:
My first one was 18. I got with my sister and it just, I don’t know. I just love putting art on my body. And there’s that weird addicting adrenaline thing that goes along with the pain that people talk about, the pain being addicting or whatever. Yeah, what’s the word? Masochist? I’m not one of those. That’s the word I’m thinking of? I got my first tattoo when I was 18. And then from there I just, I don’t know. I’d get just like a little itch. I was bored and just go to different artists, check out their work and get a tattoo. And as I got older and appreciated it more and also made more money, because tattoos are expensive. I started finding people that did way better work and made my other ones look a little better. But the one funny, not funny, very irresponsible story on one of my tattoos. At PLU, my freshman year, I was dormed with a junior and she had a boyfriend that was a tattoo artist.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh boy.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m worried about where this is going.

Chelsea Putnam:
It’s not so bad. He played soccer for Wenatchee Fire actually. And my parents still lived in Wenatchee at that time. And so when I drove home, I would take them and they would just carpool with me and to repay me for all that, he was like, “Oh, I’ll give you this awesome tattoo that you’ve been wanting.” And I was like, “Great. Where should we do it?” He said, “Oh, we’ll just do it in the dorm room.” And so we did it in the dorm room. It was fine, he would do his girlfriend’s tattoos in our dorm room too. Definitely breaking a lot of rules. But he was clean about it and it was set up very professionally.

Chelsea Putnam:
However, the caveat to that was that I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did. And he actually had a really bad drug problem. And I don’t know if he was withdrawing or too high or something, but he absolutely did the worst job I’ve ever seen. I stopped him in the middle. I was like, “You can’t keep going. I don’t know what’s wrong with you right now, but this looks horrific.” And over the years, I’ve gotten it kind of covered up.

Dillon Honcoop:
No way.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many tattoos do you have?

Chelsea Putnam:
I don’t count anymore because they blend together.

Dillon Honcoop:
You count that as one or three?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I’ve sat in the chair probably 25 times.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. What’s your favorite?

Chelsea Putnam:
My favorite is I have this big piece on my leg and it goes from my knee to my hip and it was about, Oh gosh, this girl that did the ta, we were like best friends at the time it was up in Alaska, just two peas in a pod. And just one of those really cool connections. She’s incredible artists. We sat for 13 hours. I think it was straight. And that was probably the most intense thing I’ve done ever, other than birthing a child. But I would say they’re equal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really that intense?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. It was interesting experience. That’s my favorite and I think it has a lot to do with, I mean, the art is beautiful, but there was a lot of meaning. Like she drew this original piece for me on a piece of paper and it wasn’t even for a tattoo. She just was like, “I made this for you.” She’s an incredible artist. And I was like, “I’ll make you this sculptural piece, clay artwork if you tattoo that on my leg.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Art trade?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. She tattooed it on my leg. I made her a sculpture and we have a little piece of each other forever and ever. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you tell someone like me who has zero tattoos and is very scared of getting a tattoo?

Chelsea Putnam:
Are you, oh you-

Dillon Honcoop:
I have two things against me. Number one, I’m a total wimp like-

Chelsea Putnam:
With needles or pain?

Dillon Honcoop:
Pain. I’m just total wimp with pain. And secondly, I could never, I think tattoos look cool but I could never commit to something that-

Chelsea Putnam:
That would be my first advice because I’ve-

Dillon Honcoop:
If I could get one for a year or five years even then it would be like, “Okay. Yeah, we can do this.”

Chelsea Putnam:
It’s the commitment thing to a design. I think that would be my biggest piece of advice, especially because I’ve made really spontaneous decisions to get tattoos that have very little meaning, just because it looks cool. And that might be someone’s thing. It’s like, you don’t have to have a meaning. It could just look cool on your body or whatever. But just know that that’s what you want and think about it and think about it again and think about it again, because now that I have, I call it a real job where people see me in the public eye and kids see me and they see my tattoos and they’re like, “Where did you get those Ms. P? Are you in a gang?” Like, “No. Dark.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I used to be more of a thing, but I think it’s getting less and less as more people learn to appreciate the art of tattoos.

Chelsea Putnam:
I think so, yeah. Some are very tasteful for sure. I have some finger tattoos that I can’t necessarily hide super well, some of my rings hide them, but that’s probably the most unprofessional ones that I have. Another piece of advice is consider what you want to do with your life, how you want people to see you. If you want people to look at you and be like, “Sick face tat bro.” Then get your face tat, then do it. You do you. But I don’t know it’s subjective to the person, but if you have any doubt, don’t do it. Actually in my boredom or as some of my stir-craziness, I shouldn’t say boredom, only boring people get bored. In my like being stir-crazy. I have been a millisecond away from getting a tattoo gun and like just training myself to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And doing it on yourself?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, my brother actually volunteered himself as a canvas.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Chelsea Putnam:
I’ve talked to a lot of tattoo artists. You don’t just jump in and start doing it on people. There’s ways, you can train on pig skin or you can train on, I think there’s some melons that even you can like tattoo into and has some consistencies that’s correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Get a little practice?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Yeah. I was just thinking, a couple hours tried on some pigskin and then get my brother to lay down for me.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have a brave brother.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, I know. Or stupid, I don’t know. Maybe both.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest time on the farm, this whole journey that you’ve been on?

Chelsea Putnam:
The hardest time. It’s all been challenging, which is good. The definitely the lavender farm has been challenging in the sense that the four of us, my mom, my dad, my brother and I work through a lot of ideas together. But we do a good job. It’s not been hard. It’s just been, like I said, challenging. I think the hardest time that we’ve experienced is we had a couple of years ago, three really bad years in a row on the orchards. Crops not great, return not good, just all the components that it really has to the stars have to kind of really aligned to get to turn a really good profit generate revenue, especially when you’re just a small, private farm.

Chelsea Putnam:
We thought we were going to have to sell everything, everything all of it. And the banks wouldn’t loan us any more money because we’ve had multiple bad years. It was really, really frightening to imagine all of it getting sold. Because, well now what do we do?

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you doing during that time to deal with that?

Chelsea Putnam:
Just continue to putter along and work and do the best we can to keep it moving and keep it going. And during that time it was when we were establishing the lavender farm, it wasn’t generating revenue like it does now. We didn’t have weddings out here yet. We didn’t have the Airbnb. We were still trying to dump money into it to make it what it is. We were just like, “Maybe we have to carrying it to the lavender farm too. And my brother and I always got paid though, we always got paid. My dad made sure of that, my mom made sure of that, which is good. Again, always very the rock they are the foundation. They’re providers for sure.

Chelsea Putnam:
Lots of praying on my dad’s end that’s for sure. And my uncle is involved in the farm, my dad’s brother. And so he has a fairly large role on the orchard side of it. Lots of talking, lots of trying to just figure out solutions. That’s more of my dad’s role than us just kind of waiting is waiting to see how the next season turned out. And fortunately right when we thought we were going to have to sell everything … My cat.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can hear the cat.

Chelsea Putnam:
Is it going to show up on here?

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know. We’ll have to find out.

Chelsea Putnam:
Right. When we thought we were going to have to sell everything, my dad was like, “One more year. We’re going to give it one more year and give it everything we’ve got. And if it’s another bad year it’s done, we’re done.” And that year we had the best season we’ve ever had. One of the orchards produce the best crop of cherries my dad had seen in the 28 years of farming it. It is unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. And it kept us afloat just enough. We had to have the best season of his whole farming career to just barely keep us afloat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, it was crazy and then the year following that we actually had another great year. It just kind of put us one more step up and which is good because this year does not look great.

Dillon Honcoop:
I remember a year or two, one year in specific when I was a kid, I was like, “We’re not sure if we’re going to survive.” I remember my dad had to let go of the rest of his crew and was like, “Okay, we as a family, we’re just going to do the rest of the harvest ourselves.”

Chelsea Putnam:
Wow.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was scary. Because that’s all I had known. Think of like, what are we going to do? Like move into town? That sounded the most depressing thing in the world to me at the time.

Chelsea Putnam:
With all that towny people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dad would just go to a job. We couldn’t be together on the farm all the time. I don’t know. I think there’s something that people don’t understand about the togetherness of farming with your family.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Oh yeah. It’s very strengthening because you go through moments like that. It’s not just all the people think, “Oh, you farm apples and cherries. You guys are probably so loaded. You’re so rich.” No, not at all. Not at all. We’re broke and tired. What do your parents do?

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, but then people honestly will say, and this is a little bit harsh, but this is either they’ll say it or they’re thinking it they’ll say, “Well, so why do you do it then?” And that’s the hard part to explain.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, how do you explain that? I kind of think it goes for me and this is how I answer that question. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about that needing new growth and change in my life. It was a beautiful, symbolic, physical way to see that through in my life. It’s kind of like raising a kid almost to, you’re putting something in the ground. You’re nourishing it. You’re loving it. You’re over time growing it into something that will have an end result that people will enjoy, especially berries. Oh my gosh. Right?

Dillon Honcoop:
What they don’t enjoy apples and lavender and cherries?

Chelsea Putnam:
I’m just saying. Yeah, I guess that was more personal. I love berries. I get a little tired of apples and cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you love berries.

Chelsea Putnam:
I love berries.

Dillon Honcoop:
Don’t like apples or cherries.

Chelsea Putnam:
I do like apples and cherries and so TMI probably. But I have like an iron train got to cherries. Some people can’t eat a whole lot. I can eat them all, all day long.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yes. I endorse this. I do love cherries. It’s just interesting that you say that, because you say, “Oh, I love berries, raspberries in particular, which my dad grows I’m a huge fan of.

Chelsea Putnam:
You’ve just been around them too much. Huh?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like smell is, everyone else likes it. And to me it just smells like work. It smells like, “Okay, this smells like harvest.” Which, I mean, it has its own like good memories associated with it, but not like I want to eat that. I can’t explain it beyond that.

Chelsea Putnam:
I will not pay for apples and cherries in the store. I won’t, unless my son really wants apples, but also and I’m sure you understand this too. Your standard of seeing that produce in the stores on their shelves. It’s like, “What? Those cherries are 899 a pound and they’re like being cherries and they’re tiny and they’re kind of wrinkly. I’ll get some tomorrow at harvest.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I see berries in a plastic clam shell in December and they’re pale and they’re from South America. And it’s like, “Why?”

Chelsea Putnam:
You’re like $10.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally. Expensive.

Chelsea Putnam:
But that, I think that’s a component that we’re really lucky to have growing up. Producing those things is we get to experience that produce in its most highest quality form right off the tree. There’s nothing better. And once you pass through and get the stuff, that’s good for the stores and all … I don’t know about berries. You know how much fruit is left on those trees at the end of the season? It’s a devastating amount. I just want to pick it all and take it to all the food banks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is it left behind?

Chelsea Putnam:
Not good enough. “Not good enough.” It’s not up to standard. Now, our consumers are so picky, so picky that is a Granny Smith apple, that when you look at a Granny Smith apple on a store general public views of Granny Smith apple is a nice, vibrant green with some speckles on it, but there shouldn’t be any pink or yellow. When we’re delivering to our warehouses, our packing sheds, if it has a spot of discoloration, any color other than green they throw it out because the consumer doesn’t want that. But what people don’t understand is those spots of color are from where it sat in the sun and soaked and formed more sugars than the rest of those apples and they taste better. Oh, I could get on a so box about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
But this is kind of like the ugly produce movement. Right. Isn’t that kind of a growing thing?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes, and I’m so happy for that. I like that movement. I used to grow a lot of produce out here actually and sell it at farmer’s markets and to the restaurant at Cave B. Oh my gosh, so much work, very little return. And it was just me doing it on an acre of land.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like, what would you grow?

Chelsea Putnam:
Anything I could. And I just really wanted to see what would grow out here and how I could farm it and organically to. I learned a lot trial and error. But stuff that grows really well out here; Cucumbers, lemon cucumbers, tomatoes broccoli will not grow out here. We have some insects that are attracted from other circles and crops and maybe even the trees around us that would just demolish any kind of cauliflower or broccoli before it could even come up. Eggplant grows really well out here. Let’s see, lettuces grow very well out here. Any leafy greens really. I got to really trial and error that and gain this appreciation for the ugly produce movement.

Dillon Honcoop:
You had been involved with the whole farmer’s market thing too, right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. My closest friend here in town and I started it four years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Started what?

Chelsea Putnam:
The farmer’s market. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like which one?

Chelsea Putnam:
The only one Quincy’s ever had.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s a Quincy-

Chelsea Putnam:
Quincy farmer’s market.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tell me about it. How did you do it?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh my gosh. In fact, we have some evolving changes that are about to occur with that too, that I’m very excited about. Interestingly enough, the heart of one of the most thriving agriculture towns in our state, there was no farmer’s market. And when I first moved here, I was like, “Why hasn’t anyone tried to do this?” There’s been talk about it. And some people that are like, “That’d be cool. I’m going to do that one day.” Well, I was at a school district event and I met my friend who’s around my age and my mom was like, “Hey, I know you want to start a farmer’s market. Meet my daughter, this Chelsea, she wants to do one too.” And then we’ve been inseparable ever since. And it was quite the process and we wanted to do it right. We approached city council said, “Here’s our presentation. Here’s our plan. Do we have your approval? We want to use one of your parks.”

Chelsea Putnam:
We went around. Obviously got their approval. We went around asking for sponsorship from the businesses in town. And we raised about $15,000 from the business of supporting us and being what we call charter members. And in six months from meeting each other and talking, we started the farmer’s market. And we started out with 12 vendors, nothing big, pretty small. And we had some entertainment at the park. And then the next year we had a top amount of 24 vendors. And then the year after that, we had up to like 42 on one of our markets vendors from all over only selling handmade or home grown, no commercial stuff. And this year is looking like there’s going to be a lot of big changes because the parks are closed and the city doesn’t want us to be at the park if they’re not allowing the public to be there.

Chelsea Putnam:
It looks hypocritical, which I agree. Now, we’re looking at kind of redesigning the market and relocating it to a separate section in the city, which we were at a park kind of off. It was a really obscure location. We had a hard time directing people out there. This new move would bring business to the local businesses on the main street in Quincy. It would be on the oldest street in town where my apartment is actually 1906 building. And some restaurants, a winery, a catering business, a sandwich shop. It would be on a street with all of that and space enough for families to play in the grass areas, sit and hang out, have music. And the whole street would accommodate up to like 48 vendors, very comfortably with social distancing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that was the whole issue. Even like in Seattle, following the farmer’s markets there, they were closed for a while and people were like, “Well, if the grocery store is open, why not the farmer’s market?”

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, yeah. I have lots of feelings about it too. And all this essential vendors stuff like there’s a list of essential businesses I have to turn down some of my most loyal vendors that have been with us from day one, because they’re not “Essential.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Because why they’re growing something different?

Chelsea Putnam:
No, because they’re crafting certain things that aren’t essential, but I’m like, “Hey, can you bake some cookies real quick? Because he can sell food.” Obviously.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s about food? Food has to be the thing?

Chelsea Putnam:
Food can be sold, especially obviously produce and then we can have a home improvement/home decor, which is interesting because that kind of incorporates some of our crafters. They make stuff to decorate your home or improve it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy. Maybe I can see home improvement, but home decor is that really essential?

Chelsea Putnam:
Lowe’s and home Depot are open.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Chelsea Putnam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And health and sanitation. People that make soap, our farm can be there. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Interesting.

Chelsea Putnam:
It’s very interesting. It’s so wishy-washy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s the future for you?

Chelsea Putnam:
The future for me, I would like to stay close to this area so I can keep being involved in the farms. I’ll never leave the farms, but I would like to go back to the Wenatchee Valley and live there. I would like to teach there in one of the school districts over there. I just, I love the Valley. I love the area. I love Quincy too. Like my heart will always have a place here. Or I have a place in my heart for Quincy. I would like to, I am going to get my master’s degree this summer and it’s like an online program, so it’s not affected by this COVID crisis, thanks goodness.

Chelsea Putnam:
That’ll just get me more established, in the education system. And then I’d like to eventually once Mike’s grown up and I mean, he’s almost eight, so in 10 years I would love to go get my MFA like I planned be a college professor.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. And so as you can see with all the things that I have a lot of, I like a lot of irons in the fire. I really like to stay busy and engaged and challenged. It’s a downfall sometimes. Because then I really spread myself really thin. I don’t believe that we can multitask. There’s only half- assing. And so I can tend to get a little dense sometimes. I would like to cut back on some of my involvement in things and really what I see for myself is teaching maybe even at central, because it’s so close and farming here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love that that cat interrupted us at one point in that interview. And I actually, if you didn’t catch it on our Instagram, I shared that as kind of a sneak preview to this episode, make sure to follow us for more content like that. Sneak previews, behind the scenes stuff. We’re going to work on getting more pictures and info of the guests we have and the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes with the podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop, super glad that you’re subscribed and you’re plugged into what we’re doing here to share the real stories of the people who grow our incredible food here in Washington State.We think it’s just so important to know who your food is coming from. Again. Subscribe, follow us on Instagram, Facebook and check out realfoodrealpeople.org, and also give a big thank you to our sponsors.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org and by dairy farmers of Washington supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Chad Kruger | #020 04/27/2020

He's now a key leader in the same university research system that his farmer grandpa would look to for guidance on his strawberry farm decades ago. Chad Kruger shares how WSU scientists and farmers are working together to grow food better.

Transcript

Chad Kruger:
Before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing. He always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he was such an inspirational person.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re to get kind of sciency. We’re going to get into some science stuff this episode on the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m host, Dillon Honcoop. Glad you’re here. We’re talking with a guy who’s basically a farming scientist, for lack of a better term. His team is made up of the key people who are studying scientific issues in farming and growing food here in Washington State. These are scientists who are trying to help farmers make better food and make their food better, if that makes sense. Improve the quality of what we’re able to produce, as well as improving the process of growing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this is so much about the technology now that’s involved in farming and knowing every little thing about the plants and the soil and the food and what makes it good and what makes it not good and what the impacts are. It’s really extensive, and it’s pretty amazing. Chad Kruger is our guest this week, and he actually grew up in a farming family in Eastern Washington. It was kind of cool, during the conversation we realized we had this family roundabout connection that we would have never otherwise recognized other than this talk, about how what his grandpa was doing was actually connected to my family as well as my wife’s family.

Dillon Honcoop:
My wife didn’t even grow up in Washington State, but she’s connected to this story, so you’ll hear that part, and I thought that was super cool to find out. Chad has a really great perspective on what’s happening with technology and science and farming and the production of food and why it’s uniquely challenging here in Washington, but also why we have such incredible opportunities. We talk about climate change as well, that could actually end up being an opportunity for farming in Washington State in the future.

Dillon Honcoop:
But he also has some warnings with how we’re handling that and if we’re taking action soon enough on issues. So we get into all of it this week, again with Chad Kruger. He’s with the Washington State University Center For Sustaining Agriculture And Natural Resources. He’s based in Mount Vernon, Washington, here in Western Washington, North of Seattle, and he’s got so much cool stuff to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
First, talk about what you do now and how you are connected to the food system in maybe a way that people don’t recognize. What is it that you have been doing for the past, what has it been, 10, 15 years out here?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. Maybe starting right now and working backwards a little bit, I’m currently the director of Washington State University’s research and extension centers in Mount Vernon and in Puyallup, which are both in Western Washington. Puyallup is the original off-campus agricultural experiment station and Mount Vernon is the newest of the off-campus agricultural experiment stations, and we call them both research and extension centers now, but essentially they’re labs and research farms. And so my role as director of those is kind of an unusual thing in terms of a university system, in that it’s really focused on oversight to facilities and operations management for these entities where a whole bunch of faculty research programs and extension programs operate out off of.

Chad Kruger:
So it’s not quite the same as you might expect with an academic program at a university, these are really research-based programs and my role is really responsibility for the overall campus operations and big picture investments.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sounds pretty complicated and technical.

Chad Kruger:
Yes and no. Bottom line is, it’s still just a leadership opportunity trying to work within the university system and with our partners and the agricultural community and the broader community to make sure that the partnership between the land-grant university and the community is mutually beneficial and that we’re doing things that matter in the real world and that the real world is bringing things that they need help on to the university.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the real world ultimately is producing food, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, exactly. The vast majority of what we do in our college, it’s College Of Agricultural, Human And Natural Resource Sciences, but we really are the land-grant college of agriculture that many people would have historically understood in including both the academic, the research, and the extension dimensions of that. But we’re also in the process of evolving into a future that’s not alike every other part of the food world, things are not the same as they used to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
So basically, it’s where science and farming come together, right? These are farming scientists in a way at the university level, is that fair to sum that up? Like you’re managing basically a group of farming scientists?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I might say that we’re getting more and more to the end where it’s the scientist’s side of that equation relative to the farming science dual factor, whereas 20, 30 years ago, I think you might’ve said that the science farmer was as much science as farmer. I think based on just the evolution of research needs and capabilities, we tend to focus more on getting the scientists that can help the farmer at this point in time, but you still have to have a pretty good understanding of, how do you actually grow a crop? And you need to understand your crop in the way that a farmer has to understand the crop in order to actually be able to do research on that crop that’s relevant to the farming world.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess how scientific is farming right now then?

Chad Kruger:
It’s becoming more and more science-based, more and more data-driven. And I think what we’re seeing in the ag and food world right now is, all of the technology that’s in the broader world around us is looking for its opportunity within the ag and food production and ag and food system at a level that even five years ago it wasn’t quite looking at it as intensely. And I think it’s going to continue to be that way where technology and data and understanding becomes more and more important to success in farming be able to grow a crop or produce a product that goes off into the marketplace, whether that market is local, regional or global.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are some of the biggest things that you and your team that you work with have found or discovered or tested? What kind of stuff are we talking about when we’re talking about data and science of farming and growing plants in particular? I think a lot of this is plant stuff, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. WSU historically has been very well known on the plant science side, not that we don’t have strength in animal sciences too, but historically, WSU’s expertise and reputation really has been on the plant sciences side. And that crosses everything from the grains to the specialty crops, fruits and vegetables, with a lot of background and focus on that. And so the facilities that I’ve been in charge of and a lot of the work that I’ve been involved with really is plant science focused, quite a bit of animal systems as well. People work on everything from breeding and genetics to crop protection; diseases, insects and pests and weeds, to soils and environmental issues, economics, the whole nine yards.

Chad Kruger:
We touch a little bit in a lot of places. We tend to be most focused on the actual crop production systems as opposed to, at least in the entities that I’m responsible for, as opposed to up the value chain if you will, of the food system, though there has been some work on food processing, value added, and that kind of thing. But the majority of our investment really has been growing a plant and keeping a plant growing successfully, ensuring that that’s done in an environmentally appropriate way and that we’re minimizing impacts on the larger environment.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. When you talked about the processing stuff and whatnot, I do think of stuff that you guys have done even there in Skagit where you are like the Bread Lab, that we talked about here on the podcast with Nels Brisbane several episodes ago, but really cool stuff there. But that tends to not be the main thing, the main thing is more on growing the plants and the farming side of it, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think that’s a little bit of legacy in terms of where the long-standing partnership between, at least WSU and the ag community has been, is really the help is always been needed on the production system side. I think we are thinking more and more about the bigger picture and where other dimensions of our work need to be. We did have a faculty member in food science who had joined us for a short period of time at one of the research centers recently. So it’s something that’s on our mind and we do have a food science department, food engineering, and then of course entities like the Bread Lab that really are trying to wrap their mind around this bigger picture of agriculture isn’t just about the production system but it’s about the whole system as it comes together and then the need for the market to facilitate success on farm and becoming more intentional about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the coolest thing that you feel like in your time there you have been a part of or worked on as a team?

Chad Kruger:
For me, particularly at the Mount Vernon center, I think one of the coolest things that I’ve been able to work on is helping to bring the first soils’ faculty to the center there. The Mount Vernon center has a long history in working in Northwest Washington on a number of the cropping systems that are important here, and it always seemed to me to be a bit of an oversight not to have a soils’ person in the mix. Well, there’s always been a soils’ person in the mix at the Puyallup center and in many of the other areas where I’ve worked over the years, it just felt like a key missing ingredient, if you will, of a viable cropping systems team.

Chad Kruger:
And so bringing soil’s faculty to the table in Mount Vernon that can work with the faculty that are more focused on the plant or the organism that affect a plant above the soil or in some cases below the soil, I think that was a really important thing to do. Part of that is, there’s a lot of questions that are emerging about crop performance that can’t be answered with a simple approach of diagnose and add a chemical and solve the problem. They really are systemic problems that we have to think about from a systems’ perspective. And bringing a soil scientist into the mix enables our team to have all the pieces that they need to go about asking bigger picture tougher questions that 30 years ago maybe you didn’t need to figure all that out, but we really do need to do that going forward.

Chad Kruger:
And then I think the other piece of this is as these Northwest Washington farming communities continue to move forward, the pressure around environmental issues is going to just keep increasing, and it’s already very, very tight in terms of what a farmer can and can’t do and the impacts that farming has on the environment. And one of the best tools from a research perspective that we can bring to the table is soils research because so much of what happens in terms of impacts on the environment happen through the soil as a lens or a gateway into water quality, other issues like that. And so having soil’s members as part of the team better enables us to serve an ongoing partnership between the agricultural community, the farmers, as well as the larger community that’s living around agriculture in the region.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about how important soils are as affecting so many things. And you talk about water quality. Then there’s the huge issue that everybody’s talking about, which is climate change, that’s another big soil-focused issue, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. There’s certainly an interaction between soils and vegetation and climate, or the global carbon system. I think a lot of people don’t understand that the relative amount of the global carbon budget that’s fixed in the soils versus the atmosphere, it’s much greater in soil. Soils are a much bigger reservoir of carbon than the atmosphere. And while we talk a lot fossil fuels in the context of the global carbon cycle, soils and vegetation are pretty big part of it. And while soils aren’t going to solve the whole problem, they are part of a solution. And the beautiful thing is, the kinds of things that we want to do from a farm-level perspective to improve soil management, help crops perform better, potentially help on the financial side for the farmer, those kinds of things tend to be good for the global carbon system as well.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s one of these very seemingly rare things where being focused on healthy soils is a win, win, win kind of scenario, and that is why-

Dillon Honcoop:
Rather than some trade off where it’s like, “Oh, well, you have to do the right thing, it’s going to cost you, but it’s the right thing to do.” Well, here it may benefit on both ends, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, definitely. And yet we still don’t know very much, and I think that’s the other big picture issue is, if we’re going to make progress that’s beneficial to farmers or the environment in soils, we need to know a whole lot more than we currently know. And that’s both a general issue everywhere and a specific issue in this region where we haven’t actively had soil science just working in these cropping systems, is really to understand what do we not know how to do and how do we increase that knowledge and give producers more tools that they can to improve their soil management?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like you said, there’s a lot that we don’t know, but how much is farming going to change with all of this focus on soil and learning about soil and all the science that you guys and so many other universities and agencies are doing? Is it going to change the face of farming in the near future?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer to that question. My suspicion is there will be changes, but they may not be readily observable in the sense of looking at one field compared to another field and saying, “Oh wow, that’s a big difference.” The soils don’t tend to reflect changes quickly, and so it takes a lot more time to understand how a management intervention or a management change affects the soil positively and negatively and whether or not you’ve achieved something that you’re trying to achieve. And that’s one of the great challenges that we talk about in the context of agricultural research, is soils and cropping systems types of research questions don’t tend to be easily solved with a quick experiment, and you really have to keep after them for awhile.

Chad Kruger:
And I don’t think it’s just the soil questions at this point in time anymore, I think some of the disease questions and even some of the weed management questions that historically may have presented fairly simple solutions… We’ve answered a lot of the simple questions, and we’ve done that. And the questions or the challenges that we’re dealing with today don’t have simple answers and often the answer is in the interplay between the plant and the soil or the other organisms that interact between the plant and the soil. And that’s much more complicated and not quite as easy to find solutions to. I have high hopes, but I’m not quite so convinced that there’s going to be overwhelming discoveries that really quickly help us figure out how to change things.

Chad Kruger:
And perhaps a way to think about this is thinking about it in terms of human health, it used to be you got sick, you went to the doctor and there was a new medication that the doctor could give you and all of a sudden you were better. And in agriculture and food, we were in that place for quite a while where the technology coming out of the science world was able to come up with some fairly quick fixes, but we’ve used up a lot of that. And now we’re at the point where if you talk about human health, a lot of it is about diet, exercise and other things that you can do that are focused on making a whole person healthier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holistic health.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, holistic. And that’s also, I think where we’re at in terms of farming and food production and food systems, is we’ve got to start thinking a lot more about the big picture and the interactions between the different pieces of that big picture.

Dillon Honcoop:
And talk about the soil stuff and the holistic way of thinking. I’ve gotten passionate about that over the years because of my dad. And I’ve talked at a time or two on this program about… probably more than a time or two, about how I grew up on a red raspberry farm here in Northwest Washington where you are a scientist, and I grew up on a red raspberry farm where my dad was very passionate about these issues and plugged in with what you guys are doing there at Washington State University. So I’ve been exposed to some of this stuff and been thinking about it for a long time. What’s it like working with farmers like that and seeing some of these things happen on the ground in the real world, like for instance on my dad’s farm?

Chad Kruger:
I personally think that’s one of the most exciting about this whole wonderful opportunity I’ve been dropped into the middle of, is people like your dad who just have an incredibly curious and inquisitive mind and yet are doing their best with the state of knowledge right now to produce a crop that goes into an existing system but is never quite satisfied with the feeling that we know everything we need to know, and he’s always asking new questions, he’s always observing something in the field and then saying, “Hey, I just saw this. What do you think that is?” And most of the time, we can’t answer that question when he asks it. And I think it’s really valuable for our side of the partnership to have people like him who are out there trying things who are…

Chad Kruger:
And I’m trying to think of a way to explain this, but they say farming is a pretty unusual thing and that you basically have 40 chances in your life to figure it out, and each of those 40 chances ends up looking very, very different. And the 40 chances of course are that the number of seasons that you have to grow a crop. And to be successful, you really have to be observant and thoughtful and you have to record your data, if you will, and understand how what you’ve observed in the past might be similar to or different from what you’re observing in the future, and know when you need to ask the right question or what specific observation that you’re seeing in the field you need to pursue that one.

Chad Kruger:
And having producers like him that work in partnership with us where you can have these conversations and dig deep into what we do know to figure out where are the important, critical emerging questions that we need to start doing research on in order to help solve a problem before it’s another crisis or to be able to capitalize on something that someone’s observing that they say, “Hey, I’ve been doing this and it seems to be helping. Can you tell me why?” And I think one thing that’s evolved within the ag research world, and as I point back to one of the things I said earlier about the science farmer thing where I think we’re getting more and more on the science end of that partnership, is the questions that are being asked now take a lot more knowledge and a lot more technology in order to answer them.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s becoming more and more specialized on the science end of the equation in order to run an experiment that gets an answer that a producer needs. And so whereas 30, 40, 50 years ago, there was this sense that the land-grant university was going to do research and come up with new practices and technologies that would then get extended out to the farm and the farmers would pick them up and use them. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I think what we’re seeing now is the producers that are observing things and asking those questions are bringing those things to the scientists now.

Chad Kruger:
And what our job is becoming more and more about is helping the producer understand the phenomenon that they’re observing and helping them figure out what management strategies could be employed to minimize the negative things that we see and maximize the positive things that we see. And I think going forward, producers are going to have to be more and more knowledgeable in order to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
They basically have to be scientists themselves, it sounds like.

Chad Kruger:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re farmers, does a farmer make a good scientist? What you’re describing here is a switch from a top down approach, which it sounds like you were saying the old school approach is more top down, now this is more like bottom up, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, and I think that’s the way it should be. We’re long since passed the point where the university system knows more about these crops than the farmers do. I think we’re at the point where the farmers know a whole lot more than we do, but we have what I’d call cool tools to be able to answer very specific questions that the producers are not going to be able to answer themselves. And so I think as we go forward, we’re going to see more and more of that character to the partnership between the science community and farming community.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about scientists? Do scientists make good farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I know a lot of scientists who could do a pretty good job farming, but I think for the most part, most of them will tell you that they’re really glad they’re scientists and not the farmers themselves because farming is a much more complex and challenging thing than I think most people give it credit.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the misunderstanding is there from those of us who just go to the grocery store and buy food about the science that goes into it? What you’re describing is pretty extensive as far as the amount of research and data that’s going up.

Chad Kruger:
Yup. Part of it I think is very few people ever grow a plant to me more or care for an animal at any level. And so a lot of the historic, what’s often called indigenous knowledge doesn’t exist within the greater population anymore. And so I think there’s just a lack of full appreciation for how complicated it is to produce food and to do it at the scale and with the proficiency and quality that we do. And so I think anybody can read a book or watch a video and come to a conclusion and think they know something, but 40 years of experience, 40 chances is a wealth of knowledge that I think is just often underappreciated and undervalued.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been your favorite time working with farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I think one of the things I have always appreciated the most, and this comes in all the different roles that I’ve had, is the chance to sit down with farmers and talk about the future, talk about where their concerns are about continued viability, where their concerns are about sustainability issues, whether those are profitability environmental issues, big picture, global markets and other things like that. The opportunity to sit down with a group of farmers, especially a group of farmers that come from different perspectives and can sit down and have a good conversation around what is the future looking like and how do we ensure that we have a successful future and that we’re able to continue to improve what we’re doing and continue to put a good product out for consumers and do a good job with stewardship.

Chad Kruger:
I think overall, that’s why I get up in the morning and that’s why I do what I do, is the opportunity to work with forward-looking farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that future look like? I guess, there’s challenges and maybe this is a weird way of asking it, but I almost want to say like pre-COVID, what were the dark clouds in the future that we need to deal with as far as producing food here in Washington State?

Chad Kruger:
Everything. And I say that facetiously, but in reality it’s true, it’s economic profitability. At the bottom line, if a farm can’t make money, it’s going to go out of business. And I think one thing that a lot of people don’t understand is the more and more farms that can’t make money can go out of business, the more it takes with them. So there is this strange thing about competition amongst farms, even within an area, but also that there’s a critical mass where a certain amount of cooperation of the farms in an area is important to everyone’s success and health. And the pressure around cost of production, the pressure around the value of the product is never going to let up.

Chad Kruger:
I just don’t see that ever letting up, even as we’ve gone through this recent little bit upset where people are thinking about things like, “I can’t go to a restaurant,” or “I need to get a particular type of food.” Or, “I can’t get something that I want.” While we’re thinking about this now about maybe the least cost product isn’t necessarily the best choice all the time, a year or two years down the road, I wonder how that’s going to come back to us. Are we still going to be thinking about the fact that there may be reasons that we need to not just take the least cost producer of food in order to ensure that we’ve got some resilience and robustness in our food system.

Chad Kruger:
So that’s a big one, that’s bigger than any of us, and how to address that is monumental. It’s a wicked problem. The environmental side and obviously, I’ve worked on the side, the pressure is going to continue to amount for many people in the broader public to the point where the idea that farms have any impact on the environment that’s negative is a problem. That’s a challenge, it’s an almost an insurmountable challenge because the very act of producing food has an impact. The very act of eating food has an impact. And so how do we continue to work with that challenge and continue to improve and do better, which drives up the cost of production?

Chad Kruger:
And so I think that’s a big one. And a lot of that tends to come out in terms of practical, real world impact on farms. There’s regulation, and so every time we interviewed or surveyed farmers about big issues, it doesn’t matter if they’re a wheat farmer or a tree fruit producer, a dairy farmer, a potato grower, a berry producer, it doesn’t matter if they’re big or small, conventional or organic, anywhere in between, regulation tends to come up as one of the biggest challenges to sustainability in farming. And it is what it is. We’re in a world where regulation is becoming ever increasingly the mechanism by which we do everything. And so how do we help our producers navigate that world of regulation.

Chad Kruger:
Competition. We’ve really seen this in some of our key Northwest Washington industries, that competition isn’t just local, it’s global. And there are a lot of other places in the world that can produce the same things we produce and do it cheaper. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing it better, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re protecting the environment in the same way, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re producing a product that’s as high of quality as we are, but in a marketplace that’s looking for the least cost producer, that’s a real challenge to address for Washington farms.

Chad Kruger:
And I’ve got a number of colleagues who’ve talked about the fact that Washington State will probably never be the least cost producer on a lot of the things that we produce. And that just is what it is, and it’s because we have pretty high level environmental regulations. Our labor costs are much higher than much of the rest of the world, they’re much higher than much of the rest of the country. And environmental issues, regulations, all of these things make it so that we’re never going to be competing on the same playing field as a lot of other locations around the world. And in many cases, around the country. And so we’re just going to have to do better and we’re going to have to have a better product than everybody else is producing in order to be competitive.

Chad Kruger:
I could keep going down the list, energy issues, they tend to rear their heads up and down. Right now, energy is not a problem, but that’s not going to be a long-term trend. It’s going to come back, climate is going to be an issue. Relatively speaking, we seem to be insulated from some of the more dire predictions on the climate side, but sooner or later there’s going to be direct effects, there’s going to be indirect effects, water supply. The fact that we look relatively good compared to a lot of other regions means that a lot of food production in a lot of other regions is going to start looking at the Northwest and saying, “Hey, we need to move there.” So what are the dynamics that that’s going to create?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Why other than, and I’ve heard that elsewhere too, that Washington really hasn’t been as effected by climate change as other parts of the world to date. So far it seems to be a slower thing here than maybe elsewhere, but beyond that issue, what are the advantages for growing food here in Washington? And you’re talking about the challenges, I guess maybe some of those challenges are also insight into some of the benefits too, but ultimately, yeah, what’s so great about growing food here in Washington?

Chad Kruger:
On the climate side, that is one of the things is, if you think about our geographic location in the globe, we’re pretty far north. There aren’t a whole lot of regions further north than us that are big fruit and vegetable production regions. There’s some grain producing regions that are further North than us, but generally speaking, the fruit and vegetable production regions are South of us. And so if you think about climate in terms of getting warmer… Another way to think about it is moving south. So if you think 10, 15 degrees of warming, you are in the Central Valley of California, that looks pretty good for us.

Chad Kruger:
So I think that’s something that may not be on a lot of people’s radar or screens yet, but as we move forward, there are going to be opportunities in our region, in part, because we’ve got a lot of good viable farming land and we’ve got a lot of resiliency and the resources that are necessary to produce fruits and vegetables like water supply. So I think we do have some opportunities in front of us, but we need to be thinking about them and planning for them. And one of the things that concern me a little bit about the COVID-19 situation hitting was, all of a sudden, everybody’s focused on an immediate crisis, which is a big thing, very serious, but if we don’t quickly address this crisis and get our eyes back on the big prize of the long run, we’re going to miss key investments that we need to be making relative to our future success.

Chad Kruger:
And that’s something that’s always difficult to do in the crisis as you get so caught up in the day to day that it’s easy to forget about thinking one, two 10, 15, 30, 50, 100 years ahead, which in order to continue being successful, you’ve got be looking ahead all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can see that in a couple of decades down the road, we could be saying, “Well, why didn’t we get that going back then?” “Well, because remember we were in the middle of that whole virus thing.” “Oh yeah.” That would be a sad and really at that time looking into the future, a really frustrating thing to look back on and say, “Yeah, we were worried about that and it was a bad thing, but now we’re suffering here in the future from things that maybe we didn’t have our eye on the ball enough with at that time.”

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think this virus thing is one of those, we should have seen this comment. In fact, some people did see this coming, and we should have been ready for it and this is not going to be the last time it happened. But we have this thing that we do that we tend to focus on, recent experience as the guide to the future and we tend to forget things that were really important until they hit us again. And we’ve got to get better about learning from our experiences and being ready and prepared for the next time. A good example of that was drought in the region. 2005 was a pretty rough drought and then we were in pretty good shape in the region for about 10 years.

Chad Kruger:
And then we had a big drought again in 2015, and it was surprising how much had been forgotten. Between 2005 and 2015, response options and strategies and infrastructure and institutional knowledge that should have been there, ready to respond wasn’t there. And coming out of the 2015 drought, there was a lot of learning that happened that should make the next time we deal with drought because it’s coming again, should make it easier to deal with in the future. And yet I’m not so sure that we’ve got that one figured out yet either.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into this world of food and farming and obviously, you’re so passionate about it. Did you grow up around farming?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I have the immense blessing to come from a family that has generational farms in Washington State in both my mother and father’s side. So my mom’s dad was a very grower from Lynden, Arneson Farms. He was a really innovative guy, he came out after World War II and started a diversified farming operation and ultimately got into strawberries. And so growing up, I got to spend quite a bit of time with him and learn from him. And in fact, he used to tell me stories of working with the WSU scientists at the Puyallup and Mount Vernon experiment stations where I’m currently the director.

Chad Kruger:
So I knew about those stations and I knew about Ag science before I ever knew what the land grant was. And so that was a pretty important thing. And then on my dad’s side, we were an Eastern Washington wheat and cattle ranching family, the family came out at the end of the civil war. So I think I’m sixth generation relative to the ones who came out, first settled in the state,

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to your mom’s side, the Arneson, I remember them. I remember that farm, my uncle worked for the Arneson. In fact, my wife who is from BC and I met her in college, she remembers coming down from BC to the Arneson Farm to pick strawberries. That was her memory of Lynden, before I knew her. It breaks my heart now to see that original Arneson homeplace covered in homes, but I understand that’s the way of the world these days, but every time I drive by it’s like, “Yeah, that used to be a strawberry field right there. What do you think… So that was your grandpa on your mom’s side?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think he would say about you seeing you’ve being the director of these things that he was interacting with as a professional, as a farmer back then?

Chad Kruger:
Well, he knew that he was a big part of my curiosity and push towards this direction and before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing, he always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he such an inspirational person, he always had a new thing he was going to try, a new approach. He loved the farming, but he loved the people too. He talked a lot about all of those customers that came down, particularly customers from Canada who crossed the border every year for decades to come and pick strawberries.

Chad Kruger:
And the relationships he developed over the years. And for me, that was a big thing because while I was interested in the farming and the science, he taught me that the relationships were probably as/or more important than all of it. And it’s a juxtaposition from my other grandfather who were out in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Washington, there was a saying that anytime he was more than seven miles from the homeplace, he was stressed. And I feel a little of that too, so it’s this interesting juxtaposition of two foreign families, two grandfathers that had a lot of influence on me and where I’m at.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do you think about that day-to-day? Does that cross your mind sometimes when you’re doing stuff?

Chad Kruger:
Every day, every day. I think about it every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you want your legacy to be?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and it’s one that as I get older I’m more and more thinking about. And part of this is watching my dad who’ll recently retire and he’s thinking a lot more about his legacy. And so I’m starting to think about, “Maybe that’s something I should be thinking about too.” It’s doesn’t come naturally to me, I tend to do the thing that’s right in front of me, to do that needs to be done at that time. And if that means sticking a shovel in a pile of manure, half the time, that’s what it is. But I think more and more and the leadership opportunities that I’ve been blessed to have is I’m more effective when I’m helping someone else figure out how to solve the problem that they have in front of them.

Chad Kruger:
And so more and more as I grow older and have more opportunity, I’m seeing that what I feel success in is when other people are able to succeed in part because they figure out how to work together, whether that’s the farmer-university partnership, that kind of thing, or to other people however they come together, helping people figure out how they get over these hurdles that we tend to throw up in our human organization and make sure that we can succeed going forward.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you actually grow up? Where was home for you as a kid?

Chad Kruger:
I grew up in Eastern Washington, I grew up in a little town called Othello. We’re about 90 minutes from our Eastern Washington ranch, but Othello is the place you stop to get gas between Ellensburg and Pullman. And so I grew up there and actually my first official experiences in Ag research were for WSU as a high schooler working at the Othello experiment station, doing some field work in potatoes. And so I worked on an experiment that was looking at irrigation rates and fertility rates and potatoes and another experiment looking at some of the early root imaging for potato work. So trying to understand what’s going on underneath the surface of the soil as potatoes grow.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy. We just recently had on the podcast, Camas Uebelacker from Othello. He’s a feedlot owner and operator out there, so hey, you’re from that same town, that same neck of the woods that maybe a lot of us haven’t necessarily spent a whole lot of time in, but man, a lot of the food that we eat here and all over the place comes from that part of the state, between the potatoes, the beef and everything else, and the fruit and everything.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. If you really think about it, the central part of Washington where it’s irrigated, a lot of that was broken out within the lifetimes of many people who are still farming. And it’s become one of the most productive areas of the world in terms of a lot of vegetable and fruit production systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for you?

Chad Kruger:
Well, I’m not totally sure yet, as I said earlier, I tend to do the thing that’s in front of me, very soon I might find out. I did announce last fall that I was going to step down from the Mount Vernon and Puyallup Research Centers. It had been five years at Mount Vernon and three years at Puyallup, which I was doing from a distance and the call to go back to Eastern Washington and be a little closer to that family ranch was getting more and more powerful. So we’ll see where I end up, but fairly soon, I think we’ll know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You want to be back to that family road. Are you going to farm yourself? What do you think?

Chad Kruger:
Probably not going to farm myself, I don’t think my wife would take the finances of it. It’s a little joke, but someday, I’ll go ride fences and be a cowboy again.

Dillon Honcoop:
There you go. That’s awesome. Well, thank you for sharing and opening up. We just really touched the surface of a lot of really big things that I know that you’ve spent years working on. So I appreciate you being willing to take that summary look at it because maybe some of the stuff doesn’t do it justice, but I think it’s so important and something that maybe a lot of people aren’t aware of is part of really the food system here is the university involvement and the science. And I don’t know, some people even get scared with how it’s so scientific and technical. I really view it as a good thing, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I don’t see how going forward it’s avoidable, and whether it’s the university or private sector or someone else, the pressure on the agricultural and food systems to be able to answer questions with data and to be able to manage with data are just going to increase. And so I think the long term partnership between the land-grant university and the farmers gives a bit of a leg up in that, but it’s something that we’ve got to double down and invest in to ensure that we’re going to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for sharing your story and talking with us and also with this whole COVID thing going on, stay safe and healthy out there.

Chad Kruger:
All right, thanks, Dylan.

Speaker 4:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I still think that’s so cool that his grandpa was all about and would talk about people like my wife and her family, who had come down and pick berries, and here, years later, me and Chad ended up connecting over that. What a cool guy though, and somebody who is really accomplished as a scientist but also a manager. And to do that, you have to be about all the data and all the technical stuff, but you also have to understand the people and the big picture, where this is all going and why even are we applying science to food? Well, it has to do with our future as a community, as a state, as human beings, and doing the right thing and producing food the right way, but also efficiently and competitively.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s just so cool to hear his focus on all of that, and we need to keep track of what he does next if he’s headed back to Eastern Washington. I have a hunch he’s going to find himself farming in one shape or form one day, but we’ll see. It’s just one of those things that’s in your blood. Thanks for joining us this week on the Real Food Real People Podcast. Please stay safe out there, stay healthy, follow the guidelines, and we’ll get through this thing together. Oh, and I should also thank our sponsors, Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Larry Stap part 1 | #018 04/13/2020

Twin Brook Creamery is famous in Western Washington for their local milk in glass bottles. But have you heard the story of how this family farm defied the odds to become what it is today? Fourth-generation farmer and co-owner Larry Stap reveals what was really happening behind the scenes to make it all work.

Transcript

Larry Stap:
It was a huge risk, and like I said earlier, I don’t know for sure, but I know that we were probably within months of the bank foreclosing on us. It was that close. I know it was.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, Twin Brook Creamery is known in Seattle and all over Western Washington for being the local dairy that has milk in glass bottles, the old-fashioned way. You may have heard of them, but have you heard their story of how they came to be and how they made the transition from more of a traditionally run dairy to the way they do things now? Welcome back to the podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and I’m glad that you’re here. This week we hear from Larry Stap. He’s a fourth-generation family dairy farmer and the co-owner and founder of Twin Brook Creamery in Lynden, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
The story of how they got to where they are now is pretty amazing. We had a really long conversation. We will be sharing it both this week and next in two separate parts. I know I’m getting into the habit of these long conversations that don’t all fit into one week, but there was just so much stuff to cover so much to the story. It’s so much insight to share from a guy who’s been around the block and he’s been doing it for a long time. His family has been doing it that much longer. It’s pretty eye opening to hear from Larry about some different things, why it’s so hard for farms to continue on from one generation to the next. We dig into that issue.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s different about what they do? Why do they do glass bottles? Why are they non-homogenized? How does the whole milk world really work and then about having a vision and taking a risk which applies to farming and anything else that people do, any other business idea? So many of us have ideas but you know struggle with taking that risk and to hear him and his family story about how they approach that is pretty fascinating. They had a vision and they stuck to it. He shares a little bit what was happening on the inside even as they were getting started, how many years it took them to get to where they are now.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast where we share every week with you conversations with real people behind your food here in Washington State. Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a family farm in Northwest Washington as well, not too far from Larry Stap, but a lot of this I had never even heard about the real personal story behind Twin Brook Creamery. Thanks for being here to learn a bit this week and next from Larry Stap.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re probably best known for Twin Brook Creamery.

Larry Stap:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously, you had a farming career before Twin Brook Creamery and we could talk about that too, but talk about making that transition to go from the traditional approach to something that around here at least had never really been tried before. What was that like?

Larry Stap:
Well, the approach that I’ll spend a little bit of time on was the transition from going marketing our milk to a coop to becoming an independent processor. Probably what started it at all was ignorance. We had no idea what we were getting into. It actually all started way back in 2006 when our daughter and son-in-law asked if we could join into the dairy and his youth and enthusiasm, which I greatly appreciate, said, “Instead of milking 200 cows, let’s milk thousand cows or keep on going.” The challenge behind that was we were boxed in as far as real estate didn’t have more land, so we couldn’t really grow.

Larry Stap:
Your barn is going to only hold so much. You only have so much storage for nutrients in the form of lagoons. It would have been a multimillion dollar expansion if we would have done something like that. I’m not opposed to big, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t fit into our long-term goals in my head, so I said “Let’s look at doing something different and add value to our raw commodity.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the goal was to keep family involved.

Larry Stap:
That’s right. You’re always excited to keep that next generation involved on the farm because so many of the farms, and I’m guessing two-thirds, maybe even higher, are on their last generation, sad to say. It really is and I’m not saying that that farm will go out of production, but it will probably be absorbed by a neighboring farm or another larger farm or something like that, but anyway, to keep that into the next generation and stay small, you couldn’t do it at existing commodity prices. It would have been a real challenge. It’s not like I had been dairying and was debt free and all the rest of that kind of good stuff.

Larry Stap:
Adding value to our raw commodity, we had no idea what something like that would look like, but we just threw out there everything from bottling our own milk to making yogurt to making cheese to whatever. What we stumbled across, not through any fantastic research or anything like that, but nobody was doing milk in glass bottles and glass returnable bottles.

Dillon Honcoop:
The old way.

Larry Stap:
The old way, the old school. Nobody was making cream top milk, non-homogenized, natural, the way it comes right from the cow. That’s where we started. We started with an estimated budget of $75,000, what we figured it would cost us to get up and running. $250,000 later, we finally bottled our first bottle of milk. It was quite an eye opener.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did that feel like going through that? As the bills and that price keeps getting higher and higher, you got to be thinking “Did we make a mistake here?”

Larry Stap:
Oh, absolutely because the way you’re financing this thing is equity. You’re borrowing from the bank and it’s equity and it’s equity. It just kept going. Part of it was ignorance. Part of it was the regulatory world was not very friendly at times. Some of it, I understand later, was necessary, but it was never communicated that way. It was just like, “It’s my way or the highway,” and that was very frustrating. I can remember one time being so upset that I walked out of the building and went for a walk out in the field to contain myself. It takes a lot to get me upset. I’m a pretty tolerant patient person, okay? I don’t mean that in a bragging way, but that’s the way I’ve just been brought up and learned to handle situations in life.

Larry Stap:
Anyways, that’s the way it started going. We started bottling our own milk, but you don’t instantly find a home for 200 cows’ worth of milk overnight because even if a larger grocery store chain wanted to take your milk on, they don’t know who you are. They don’t know if you’re going to be here tomorrow. They don’t know if you got a quality product. Unbeknownst to us, they were watching us. About two years into it, we started be able to expand into some larger grocery store chains. Once that happened, it just snowballed, but in the process of that time, we started bottling milk in 2007.

Larry Stap:
The first year we broke even was 2012. We sucked equity even faster and faster and faster. Of course, during that time, conventional dairy went down. Economics went down in 2009 and 2010. I never officially know, but I know that we were probably within months, if not days, of being called on by the bank …

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Larry Stap:
… but we knew the market was out there. We didn’t have access to capital because our supply or our orders were starting to exceed our ability to bottle and we were just got a little tiny plant getting started. Northwest Ag Business Center, NABC, stepped up to the plate and really helped us and got some private money. Now, this is the most amazing thing. When we asked for private capital to expand our plant to take care of production needs to fulfill orders, we put a complete financial package in front of them, including all of our losses, many years of losses and put the word out.

Larry Stap:
We sat around a kitchen table individually with about seven different parties and not one of them even questioned, loaning us money privately, even with that history. They caught our vision. They knew it. We borrowed money from a lot of private individuals. We put it on a seven-year note. Two years later, we had them all paid off because we were able to expand it. It was amazing, just absolutely amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Before that, what were you telling yourself to get through? Were you to the point where you’re thinking, “Maybe we bag it”?

Larry Stap:
Not necessarily. We knew we just had to access some capital somehow, and with a crisis going on and the economy and banking industry back at that time, even if they did catch your vision, they just says, “No, it ain’t going to happen.” It was tough, but we never gave up.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like it was because of that vision that you had that was so strong that you weren’t going to give up. Describe that vision at least. What was it at that time?

Larry Stap:
Well, I’ll give you an example of what kept us going. It was our vision, but after I told you, I told you earlier, we got started getting approached by store chains. One day, I get a call. I don’t remember if it’s call or an email, but from QFC store chain, Quality Food Center, out of the Seattle area where their headquarters in Bellevue and they said, “Can we put your glass milk bottle in all our stores?” and I says, “I would dearly love to be able to do that to you, but I don’t have the processing capacity to do that. I believe we got the cows, but I don’t have the processing capacity.”

Larry Stap:
Well, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. What they said was, “Would you start with a few stores and then slowly expand and grow into it?” I said, “Sure.” We started off with seven QFC stores, but that isn’t the end of the story. Here’s the amazing part. One of the things that my wife and I do to promote our farm and promote dairy in general and farming in general is we stand in the grocery store and interact with customers and give out samples. One day, we’re standing in one of the original seven QFC stores and these three gentlemen in black suits and ties come walking through the store with the store manager and you could obviously tell they’re corporate people.

Larry Stap:
I always never pass an opportunity to introduce myself and thank them for allowing us in and they all knew about us a little bit even though it was small at that time. As then, they proceeded on. One of the gentlemen came back and said to me, “Do you want to know why you’re in our store chain?” I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to know why.” Well, he said, “We received an order from Kroger company to look at a glass milk bottle line in your QFC stores because the stores on East Coast that we own have a very successful program in that line of glass.”

Larry Stap:
I said, “Well, I’d greatly appreciate that and I appreciate you taking the time to allow us to grow and expand into it.” One more thing he says, “If I could pay you a little bit more for your milk for a while, would you be able to grow faster into our stores?” I says, “Well, that’s a pretty stupid question to say no to.” For how many months, they increased the price of our milk to us to give us more capital to expand. We took that additional capital we got for a number of months, you take the additional money that we borrowed from the private people as well as a lot of hardworking employees, and next thing you know, we’re in all the QFCs.

Larry Stap:
Then of course, what’s also interesting is these grocery stores don’t like to beat one up to buy another grocery store chain.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was thinking about when you said it snowballed once you got a couple grocery stores.

Larry Stap:
It does. The Haggen caught the vision. QFC caught the vision. Next thing I know, Metropolitan Market has a store chain in Seattle and the Town and Country store chain. What has been so rewarding is how supportive they’ve been to our farm. I can contact the corporate offices of most all those chains. They just think the world of us. We think the world of them. It’s just been a really win-win situation for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
None of this picture that you’re describing is normal.

Larry Stap:
No, it absolutely is not.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s just not the way. Usually, the relationships are adversarial. They’re trying to get the lowest cost they can and what you described with them willing to invest in your operation and allow you to start smaller. Usually, it’s like, “Either you supply this certain need that we want or forget it,” right?

Larry Stap:
Yeah, but you got to think about the landscape that started 10, 15 years ago. Local wasn’t big way back then, but it was on a groundswell of a movement. For a large store chain to get involved local is relatively hard and they saw this as an opportunity, I do believe. The other thing by us putting it in glass milk bottles also was a marketing niche that didn’t compete with other, the plastic jugs or carts, okay? This hopefully would attract another set of customers to them. This is probably the biggest thing that sells it to these stores is the markup on our milk is far exceeding what plastic jug milk markup is and stuff like that.

Larry Stap:
They can actually take a local product, touted as local and make some money on the product that they sell which is absolutely wonderful for them and us. It opened the door. Now, I tell you all these things and I take no credit for it. We have a great faith in our God up above and it was also providentially put in place for us that I looked back at it and I thought I just still can’t believe it to this day. It just blows my mind away how everything. It’s not that we didn’t have struggles and challenges and still do for that matter, but it’s been so rewarding.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you weren’t able to move into that without taking that risk too?

Larry Stap:
Oh, no. It was a huge risk. Like I said earlier, I don’t know for sure, but I know that we’re probably within months of the bank foreclosing on us. It was that close. I know it was. It was just a challenge.

Dillon Honcoop:
After going through all of this, you’ve proven with this that there is a market for locally produced food. In a realm where people probably thought it wasn’t possible, what had the conversations been? What did the traditionalist say about all of this?

Larry Stap:
Well, I have gotten so much support from my local farmers by and large. I have a little market niche that doesn’t cannibalize somebody else’s sales. If I could show you emails that people that just for years haven’t drunk milk for whatever reason and they drink our milk and they’re coming back to it or there’s other little health reasons that they can drink our milk and not maybe some conventional milk and it’s just been so rewarding in that respect. We literally now, as I always say, have been so blessed that we created a monster we can’t get away from, but it’s been a wonderful, wonderful ride without its challenges, I say, but it’s been good and we’ve been blessed.

Dillon Honcoop:
Glass bottles, non-homogenized, explain what are the benefits of these things and how else is your milk different. What is it really that people like?

Larry Stap:
I got my main five points that I tell the customers or any perspective store chains or whatever, but number one, we know the exact source of our milk. It’s not commingled with anybody else’s farms. It’s our milk from our girls. We raise our own young stock. We have what we call a closed herd, a closed milk supply, so we control the quality. Number two, we use what we call low temperature of that pasteurization, okay? It’s a very slow process. We raise the milk up to 145 degrees, have to hold it there for 30 minutes and then we can cool it back down and bottle it.

Larry Stap:
Most all other milk is done at, let’s say 165, maybe 170 for 15 to 30 seconds or your ultra-pasteurize is around 280 and 290 for two seconds. What that low temperature gives us is retaining of the flavor of the milk, just completely different tasting milk. It’s just hard to compare, but it doesn’t cook the flavors out and it also retains some of the enzymes in the milk that higher temperatures cook out. Milk naturally contains a lot of enzymes in it that aid in the digestion. The more of those you can retain, the better the milk will be for your digestive system.

Larry Stap:
Number three is we don’t homogenize. It’s quite amazing that most people, when I say most, a lot of people do not know what’s the difference between pasteurization and homogenization is. To get technical and try to explain homogenization is, I come up with a very simple way to explain it to the consumers. When milk comes from a cow, it consists primarily of two things butter fat or cream and skim. The butterfat or cream is a larger particle than the skim and it will naturally float to the top of the skim. When you’ve heard of the sayings, “The cream of the crop,” or “The cream rises to the top,” that’s where that comes from.

Larry Stap:
Homogenization is a process that puts it through a machine at 2,000 to 3,000 psi and smashes or breaks that particle into a smaller particle and then it will stay suspended in the skim. We do not do that process. We leave it natural, so the-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your milk will separate?

Larry Stap:
Your milk will separate, so you can do one of two things. When you buy a bottle of milk from us, you can spoon the cream off and put it in your coffee or whatever you feel like doing or you just shake it back in and reincorporate it back in. Another thing that we do is glass does not alter the taste of milk. It’s an impermeable surface, you might say. There’s been some discussion on light taste alteration, but we really don’t ever get any feedback on customers for that at all. It will sit on a shelf for a couple of weeks under light and still tastes just fine.

Larry Stap:
Then, the third or one of the fifth thing that I talked about is we milk the jersey breed cows, the little brown ones, okay? They produce less volume of milk than the traditional black-and-white Holstein which is probably 90% of the dairy cows in the United States. What makes their milk different is the lower volume they produce but they also produce what we call a higher solid content. Now, milk is primarily made up of water which has no flavor, but the solids in the milk is what gives milk its flavor. To give you an idea of how much more solids are in the milk, a general rule of thumb goes like this, when you make cheese, all you’re doing is extracting the solids out of the milk.

Larry Stap:
You’re coagulating together with cultures and then the white, the whey or the water flows off. If you take 10 pounds of Holstein milk, the general yield is around one pound of cheese. You take 10 pounds of Jersey milk, the yield is around 1.5 pound of cheese. You’re talking 50% more yield. Now step back again and think about what I just said, flavor, where does the flavor come from? The solids, so when you have a higher solids content in your milk, you’re going to have a more flavorful milk. Then people have asked me, “Why do not more farmers bottle jersey milk or why the processes are not bottle more jersey milk and make it a more flavorful milk?”

Larry Stap:
It’s all driven by USDA pricing. A fluid milk has to meet a certain minimum solids content in the grocery store. If you exceed that, you’re in no way compensated by the milk pricing system. The incentive is to put in to the bottle or the jug the minimum, generally speaking, and for high-yield milk such as the colored breeds, we call them jersey, Guernsey stuff like that, the incentive is for those to go to cheese vats, powder plants, cottage cheese, ice cream because the yield is greater and that’s where they get compensated. That sets us apart. We had the jersey cows and that’s what we bottled and it also became part of our marketing niche.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do people say in the grocery store? I know like you explain this so well because I know you’ve done that thousands of times like you’re talking about earlier visiting stores and actually meeting your customers in person. What do they say?

Larry Stap:
Probably the biggest reward of going to the grocery stores is this, they’ll start talking to me and then they’ll ask me, “Well, do you work for the farm?” Then, I says, “Well, no. We along with our daughter and son-in-law and the bank, we own the farm.”

Dillon Honcoop:
And the bank.

Larry Stap:
It is a whole different appearance that comes right on their face like they actually cannot believe they’re talking with the farmer himself. That is so huge to me, not in a prideful way, but it reinforces the fact that we as farmers need to connect with the consumers. When we do, they just appreciate it that it’s not coming in secondhand information from some other party. Even a hired employee as well as they could probably do it, but when we do it ourselves, the consumer just makes that incredible bond. It’s j fun to watch. It’s fun to be a recipient on that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of questions come up usually?

Larry Stap:
There’s so many different questions and I always say the questions are reflective of what’s going in the internet at that time like calves, “How do you take care of your calves? Is your milk A1 or A2? Are your cows grass fed?” and stuff like that and you have the opportunity then to really educate people. I’ll give you an example. People say, “Are your cows grass fed?” and I says, “You bet they are, but how do you think we feed them grass in the middle of winter when it’s not growing?” Well, they drop their jaw like, “Well, I never thought such a thing.”

Larry Stap:
Then, that opens the door to explain to them how we harvest grasses during a summer. We put it in storage in the form of hay and silage. If they don’t know what silage is, I’ll explain to them, but that’s grass fed year around. It maybe not green and fresh, but they get grass year round that way, you see, and it just helps to educate consumer. It gives me great joy in doing that, not just to promote our own farm but to promote agriculture and dairy specifically in general. Never, never run down anybody else’s farm. Every farm does it different. Everybody has their own way of farming, the way they process their milk. That’s fine. The way they ship their milk, whatever, like to dispel a lot of myths about big farms because there’s a lot of misinformation about that.

Larry Stap:
Just tell them, “About 98% of all dairy farms, big or small, are owned by families. Most people have no idea. They just think it’s big corporate. How they care for their cows, every farm does a little bit different. I happen to do it this way, but if my neighbor does it this way and he takes good care of his cows, so be it. So be it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean, take good care of your cows? How can you tell if somebody is doing the right thing or not?

Larry Stap:
Well, just stop back and think about the cows. The girls on a farm are producing milk for you, which you have the opportunity to sell, which makes a living for you. Why would you not properly take care of your source of income. Now, that taken care of has all different aspects to it, but to say that farmers just abuse their cows or get by with whatever they can, he’s going to go out of business. He won’t be around. Even if he is, he’s going to get in trouble probably with things like regulators and stuff for other aspects of his farm.

Larry Stap:
If he has an attitude of not wanting to take care of his cows, he’s probably got not a good attitude about wanting to take care of the environment and that kind of stuff. That’s not the general way at all of dairy farmers, big or small. Almost all of them are very responsible. They’re stewards. We’re probably one of the few farms in the world that actually has a mission statement and it drives us, but it’s very reflective of most farms. Our mission statement goes like this, “We are a family-owned and operated dairy that exists to glorify God through the stewardship of the land and the animals that he’s entrusted to our care in the best way possible.”

Larry Stap:
Most farms probably do that, okay? They just don’t have a mission statement, but that’s the way most farms operate. Do they do it perfectly? No. Do I do it perfectly? No, but we try just like anybody else tries to take care of the environment in this world.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been mentioning the environment. How do you approach that realm? There’s a lot of criticism out there that in general, commercial dairy farming, which you do is bad for the environment.

Larry Stap:
It’s all based in ignorance. Once you start educating the consumer about it, most of that badness, lack of a better word, goes away. One of the things I like to talk about too is the soil amendment of choice for crops to grow and I don’t care if it’s grass, if it’s corn, if it’s vegetables, the soil amendment of choice is manure. That is the nutrient of choice, right? You can go to the grocery store and buy bags of steer manure or steer compost or whatever and that is the perfect soil amendment.

Larry Stap:
Soil is a living organism just like a cow and you need to maintain soil health to grow high-quality crops, so that you can feed high-quality feed to your cows, calves, whatever. It’s all a reflection of stewardship again. Like I say, once you explain to whose ever questioning you or challenging you, it starts to make perfect sense. I’ve often said too that there’s a lot of people that are vegan by choice and that’s fine. I says, “Number one, we live in a free country where you have that choice. Be thankful because in a lot of places in the world, they don’t have that choice. Number two, I’m never going to run you down on your choice. I will never speak badly of you, but do not do the same for me.”

Larry Stap:
I’m making this choice here and I go back into, “What is the soil amendment choice of all the produce and products you like to eat that are nonanimal agriculture oriented?” Animal agriculture provides the majority of the nutrients that are needed for optimum soil health. Commercial fertilizers can supplement it very well, but manure has the source of bacteria and organic material that so many commercial fertilizers cannot provide. Now, there’s a lot of farms that are not blessed with access to the nutrients.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which by the way, we are on a working farm, and on a working farm, it’s not just the barn where things keep going. It’s in the house too, right? Technically, this is … When I’d interviewed you on a different issue in the past, this is the corporate office, right?

Larry Stap:
Yeah. It all started one time when United Way called us and asked if they could make a presentation for participation on our farm with United Way. The young lady that I was talking to on the phone, she says, “And what is the address of your corporate office?” and I says, “9728 Double Ditch Road, Kitchen Table.” That to this day has been a fun little thing that I always tell, the kitchen table is our corporate office and that’s where our business takes place. That’s where we do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right here.

Larry Stap:
Right here.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the real deal and that’s true for so many family farms.

Larry Stap:
It is. It is very true. You can have an office in the barn or whatever, but the office in the barn usually gets dirty and there’s barn boots in it and there’s dust and there’s dirt and all that kind of stuff, but the real business takes place, well, actually two places, on the hood of the pickup or on the kitchen table.

Dillon Honcoop:
Leaning over the hood of the pickup, getting caught up on the news or making a deal or-

Larry Stap:
Signing papers, whatever.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about, you described making this decision, taking this risk to go from more of a traditional system on your farm to independent marketing of your product, direct sales to the consumer with a glass product and all these things that we’ve just discussed. That was a decision you made in large part to keep your family involved in this business, your daughter and son-in-law.

Larry Stap:
That’s correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s especially important to you guys because of the history of this farm and your family though, right? What is this, four generations now, five?

Larry Stap:
Well, I was born and raised on this dairy farm. It was established by my great grandfather in 1910, so I currently am fourth generation. Our daughter and son-in-law represent the fifth generation and they have six children, especially the oldest one, he’s 15 and he eats, sleeps, breathes cows, so we’re well onto generation hopefully number six. He’s got such a passion for cows and pedigrees and all that stuff. I hope we can keep him on the farm or we don’t lose him because some stud farm or something like that, that appreciates people like him, but he’s a fantastic kid, a hard worker, stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
I drove by one of your fields on the way here and it looked like he was out driving tractor.

Larry Stap:
Oh, yeah. They’re loving the fact that there’s no school.

Dillon Honcoop:
What a world that we live in with COVID and everything that’s changed.

Larry Stap:
Apart from the fact that there is no school with this whole thing, they are homeschooled. They have the flexibility too. If they can get their schoolwork done at home on time and they can get on the tractor or they can get out in the barn and stuff like that, there’s some real incentives or even coming over here to grandpa and grandma’s place. They know that they can’t come here until their schoolwork is done, so it’s a good driver in a lot of ways.

Dillon Honcoop:
But then a lot education happens on the farm too.

Larry Stap:
Oh, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know that because I did the same thing.

Larry Stap:
I can ask, “What are you guys studying today or something, you oftentimes can give living examples on the farm or what’s going on and stuff like that. Everything from math to geography, you name it. It can all be shared as you’re working, side by side.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re fourth generation. How did you get started? Go back to when you were a kid. How did you work into it? How did this farm evolve during your time?

Larry Stap:
I worked beside my dad all the time. Never probably really considered it work. You went out, did chores. It was part of your responsibilities growing up. You maybe didn’t like it sometimes, maybe you did. That was just part of my life. When I graduated from high school, which my parents were really thankful I did, because I hated school, I had no passion. I then worked for a John Deere dealership right here in town for about five years and then started farming. Pretty much, I’ve never looked back since. I started in 1979, worked with my father-in-law for a couple of years and we branched out onto our own.

Larry Stap:
There’s been a lot of twists and turns and hiccups in the whole process over the years, but a supportive wife who probably does as much on chores in the farm, then our kids helped us. It just kept going, but I learned a lot from multi-generations in front of me. My grandpa was on a farm when I was a little kid here and you can see his work ethic, and then, you watched my dad’s work ethic. I’ve tried to mimic that in a lot of ways and pass that on to our children and keep it going. That’s the goal. The other thing that has come really home and center is that when it’s time to pass to generation or the farm onto the next generation, you make it financially feasible for that next generation to keep it going.

Larry Stap:
Greed is not part of the philosophy of farming. If greed was part of it, we could have sold our land years ago for many thousands of dollars more and moved on and done different things, but that’s not part of the mental makeup and the heritage that I’ve inherited and I hope to pass on.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talked earlier about a lot of farms are not able to go on. Often, that is because the kids, the next generation, they don’t want to do it, right?

Larry Stap:
That is so true and you can’t blame them. If you don’t love farming and cows, there’s an easier way to make a living. It’s just plain and simple. I don’t believe that a lot of your 8:00-to-5:00 jobs are ever going to give you as much reward as 10 or 12 or 14-hour a day on a farm seven days a week with a dairy especially, but I was so blessed to have a son-in-law who asked to join in a dairy. He was raised on a dairy. His dad quit when he’s 13. He was working an 8:00-to-5:00 job, was within hours of being a licensed electrician, okay? He’s working for an electrician and then he asked if he could join in the farm.

Larry Stap:
I said, “Well, you’re welcome to join, but you have to finish to get your license first, so that’s your backup if you bail.” He has never looked back on that. He spins long days, long hours, just scrape out a living here on the farm. He’s not only putting long hours in, but it’s not inside. It’s oftentimes out in the elements to fight northeasters or blistering hot heat or schedules that can’t be met or dealing with the regulatory world or on and on it goes. There’s just a whole raft of stuff that he could have chose to go away from and he didn’t. For that, we’re so thankful.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why did he choose that?

Larry Stap:
You’ll have to ask him. I cannot speak for him.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, he must have a passion.

Larry Stap:
I think he does. He recognizes the value of raising a family on a farm. This gives them an opportunity to homeschool and have a farm and it reinforces your schooling and stuff and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Be together as a family, rather than a part most of the day.

Larry Stap:
Yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s why I was homeschooled until I went to fifth grade. With farms struggling to move onto the next generation, though, sometimes it is that the kids want to do it, but it’s not necessarily possible too.

Larry Stap:
Yeah, the generation that wants to pass it on sometimes may not be in the financial position to do that. Farming is not easy. It’s not a life where you’d pay down debt real fast because you usually wind up paying down some debt and then this comes along and you got to borrow money for that or the milk prices tank or economy or whatever. Sometimes, yeah, it just does not work out financially. I think more than the financial part is the fact that the kids watch their dad work and work hard and work hard to put groceries on the table and not have big 401Ks and stocks and bonds and all the rest of stuff. Just work and they says, “I don’t need to do that. It doesn’t interest me. My passion isn’t like my dad or my grandpa,” and so they move on.

Larry Stap:
There’s even some younger families that I know of that, when I say younger they’re in their 50s probably, that have kids that are on the farm with them, but it just doesn’t work out financially to move it on to the next generation. That may sound strange, but until you’re actually in the trenches on a farm and know what it takes for capital and you don’t just buy a tractor and have a tractor the rest of your life. It depreciate out and it wears out. Then, you need to buy another one or your milking equipment wears out or you got to upgrade this and it takes a lot of money, just us.

Dillon Honcoop:
But if a farm is operating, why can’t it just move on to that next generation? If the parents are running it, why aren’t the kids able to keep running that same thing? What happens in between?

Larry Stap:
Well, you think about the parents who put their blood, sweat and tears and that they probably got some equity built up into it. Oftentimes, the equity that is a farm has is their savings. When they decide to quit farming, they don’t have a big savings account. They have an equity account. If that equity account is not big enough to finance the next generation, it just can’t happen and a bank is certainly not going to just step right up and finance the next generation, bank to their credit, lend money, but banks don’t take on a lot of risk either. If mom and dad aren’t going to co-sign, let’s say for the next generation, they maybe can’t do it. Even if they did co-sign, sell it to the next generation, mom and dad need an income to live.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s their retirement.

Larry Stap:
That’s their retirement. All of a sudden, you got a bank payment and payment on mom and dad to borrow the rest of the money. It’s just a financial hit. It’s a challenge.

Dillon Honcoop:
Once they get taxed on that …

Larry Stap:
They get taxes on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
… transaction as well, right?

Larry Stap:
Yup, so it’s not easy. It definitely is not easy.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real, People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you hear the backstory and what goes on behind the scenes, the financial challenges, it makes it seem not much more daunting to keep family farming going. Sometimes, it feels like the odds are just stacked against it, but at the same time, what they’ve done there at Twin Brook Creamery is an inspiration, that it is possible to think outside the box, do something different. Next week, the conversation continues. That was just part one. We get into more of the real personal challenges and some of the hardest times they’ve faced on Larry’s steps farm including the loss of his son and so much more.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s an incredible conversation. You won’t want to miss it next week. Thank you for being here. Thank you for supporting us. We sure would appreciate it if you share the podcast with a friend. Pass it on in your social media if you can. Share it on Facebook or on Instagram or on Twitter or on those platforms, rfrp_podcast is the handle, so check it out, subscribe as well. It just helps us bring this conversation to a wider and wider audience. Again, we thank you for your support just being here today.

Dillon Honcoop:
I should also thank our sponsors Real Food, Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Camas Uebelacker part 2 | #017 04/06/2020

Growing food takes an emotional toll on farmers, and Eastern Washington cattle feeder Camas Uebelacker has experienced highs and lows as a first-generation farmer. In the second half of our conversation, Camas opens up about the struggles he's faced.

Transcript

Camas Uebelacker:
All those dreams and thoughts that you had are gone and it’s not that somebody stole them from you. You know? It wasn’t like my house got broken into, and I got robbed. It’s nothing like that. It’s just literally gone, and there’s nobody to blame. There’s no fingers to point other than mother nature. She can be fickle.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be stressful, though.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a complete pain in the ass, man.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the Real Food Real People podcast. Farming is tough and, of course, there are a lot of the reasons that we often think about, out in the elements, dealing with weather, hard, backbreaking work, but sometimes it’s the emotional toll and the stress, the uncertainty, the impact on families. We get into that more this week as we talk with Camas Uebelacker.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the second half of our conversation. Last week was the first where we talked more about the nuts and bolts of his operation, what his views on the environmental impacts of feedlots is, and how much he cares about doing the right thing with his operation producing beef for, as he mentioned last week, 65,000 people.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, he opens up a bit more about the personal stuff. It gets a little bit more into what this means for his family and his future, what he’s going to tell his kids about getting into farming someday when they get to that age, and he also lets us in a little bit on his own kind of internal struggles with doing this sometimes. So, stick around for this half of the conversation.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you want to know more about how Camas’ operation works, listen to last week’s episode. You certainly don’t have to listen to that one first to have this one make sense for the most part. I think there are a couple of things maybe that we referenced in the second half that go back to the first, but for the most part, you can listen to this first if you want to, but if you want to know more about Camas and what he does, the kind of operation he has and how he runs it, you’ve got to listen to last week’s part one episode with him.

Dillon Honcoop:
He’s a cattle feeder, a feedlot owner in Othello, Washington. Great guy that somebody connected me with and I said, “He’s got to be on the podcast,” and I was so happy that we were able to make this conversation happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
My name is Dillon Honcoop, and this podcast is documenting my journey to places all over Washington State to talk with the real people behind our food. A lot of those are farmers, understandably, like Camas, but other people as well, like Niels Brisbane in the world of the culinary arts, and trying to connect farms with eaters, and like Sandi Bammer in Wenatchee selling food from her small local grocery store.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for me on this journey, and I’m sure that you will enjoy this part of my conversation with Camas Uebelacker. Fascinating stuff. Some of the things he says really give a good idea of the mindset of farmers and the things that they face and the reasons why they do some of the things they do. So, buckle up for another great part of the conversation.

Dillon Honcoop:
What has been the hardest thing through all this? What was the hardest time?

Camas Uebelacker:
The hardest time? I would say anytime we’ve decided to make any growth decision, and I don’t want to scare anybody young off that is deciding or thinking about going into ag, but it is probably the toughest nut you’ll ever crack to get your … Everybody says, “Oh, I want to help you. I want to help you,” but when the rubber hits the road, you have to have enough acres, you have to have enough equipment, you have to have enough of that stuff, and you can rent ground, you can rent tractors, and you can rent all those things, but the cost is just, it’s mind blowing.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, some crops you’ll have $1,250 an acre. If you’ve got a couple of hundred acres of it, there’s a lot of coin wrapped up. The other hard part is you get that wrapped up in it and you get paid once a year. So, you got to make it last and you got to have a budget. I mean, you really got to nail it down.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s one of those things that when weather screws you up, and I’ve had it happen. We had an our entire corn crop blow down flat one year when we had a lot of wind come through. It took two years to dig out of that hole. As you know, it was one of the better crops I’ve grown, and then you wake up in the morning and it’s flat. You’re like, “Man! Now, what do I do?” Well, we harvested as best we could. We lost a lot of corn. We lost a lot of money that year.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are you telling yourself in a situation like that?

Camas Uebelacker:
No joke, I mean, some days I was like, “Man, it’d be so much easier to work for somebody else. If I could just get a paycheck right now, that’d be cool.” Typically, I mean, when that had happened, we had some history farm and we had some history with our bank. They understood and you just work through it, but at the time, there’s a lot of head scratching, and then the other hard part is … So, you lost your crop, right? Now, well, it wasn’t lost. It just became extremely difficult to harvest.

Camas Uebelacker:
Well, then you just get your teeth kicked in from getting it all blown down and then you’re going to get a bill because it’s going to cost more to harvest it because it’s laying down flat. So, it’s like the beatings just never stop coming, right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Until it’s done and then you wipe that slate clean, but the beauty of farming is there’s always next year, right? “Well, we’re going to change this. What did I do wrong? Was my fertility wrong? Did I need more phosphate or potash in the soil to help for stock strength?” You start second guessing what it is that you’ve done in the past that worked great, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe it was just the freak storm.

Camas Uebelacker:
It was, and that’s what it boiled down to because I took tissue samples and we took them in and had them checked, and I was like, “Man, well, it wasn’t something I … Maybe I didn’t screw that up,” but there is a lot of those lessons learned that when you get … That particular year, that was it. That was a tough one. We also had hay cut at that time, and that circle typically on that cutting should have done two and a half ton to the acre dry hay, and I think I got like 29 bales off of it and the rest of it I had a pitch fork out of my neighbor’s front yard. So, it-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the rest of it just blew away?

Camas Uebelacker:
As gone. Literally, I couldn’t find it. It was gone, loaded all the way. So, I mean, literally, you’re making decisions off of that crop while you’re cutting it, looking at it like, “Man, this is nice. Hey, this is going to go up really good. The weather looks great. I’m going to sell this and we’re going to get some money. Maybe I should buy a new pickup. Maybe I should take my wife out to dinner.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are all the things that are going through my head, and then you go out there to bale it, and you’re like, “Where in the hell did it go?” All those dreams and thoughts that you had are gone, and it’s not that somebody stole them from you or it wasn’t like my house got broken into and I got robbed. It’s nothing like that. It’s just literally gone, and there’s nobody to blame, there’s no fingers to point other than much mother nature. She can be fickle.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be stressful, though.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a complete pain in the ass, man. I mean, it is. We’ve had blizzards in the feedlot, where cattle walked over fences and walked away, but I tell this to my kids that I’m super proud to be part of an industry that when the weather gets as bad as it gets, we go outside, we don’t go home.

Camas Uebelacker:
You might be going out and checking to make sure your circles are pointed in a direction where the wind won’t blow them over, but you’re out there in it, right? It’s funny because it’ll be evening here and we’ll get a storm or something like that, and then all of a sudden, you start seeing headlights driving around on the county roads and things because all the guys are out checking stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I’m proud to be part of an industry that when the weather hits and it’s crappy and it’s blowing sideways and it’s snow, we’re out there. It’s cool. I try to tell that to them because it’s not the norm. Most of the time, they’ll close work or, “Hey, school’s closed today. You got a snow day.” Well, guess what, guys? Get your gloves. We’re going.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s extra work today in the snow.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah, and I’m proud of that. I mean, I’ve got no problem doing that. I’m happy to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
When it does get stressful, whether it’s a storm or a crop loss or anything like that, what do you do to deal with the stress?

Camas Uebelacker:
I go fishing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where?

Camas Uebelacker:
On the Columbia, that’s no joke. I got a boat and I go fishing. That’s my golf. I mean, I can sit in that boat and think about things and you can scream and yell cuss words as loud as you want and nobody’s going to hear it, and I come, and I’m happy, but you don’t really get, I wouldn’t say there’s no escape, right? I mean, it hangs over. It’s in the decision. The hard thing that I had to learn was that it’s whatever you do today basically is going to affect you a year out.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, if we have that crop loss, and you’re supposed to be paid for it at a certain time, I mean, it basically takes a year to dig out of it or offset it somehow. Diversity is huge. That’s why I like to farm and I like to have cattle because we’ve got our hands in a little bit of everything. We grow some seed crops. We do some other things. Diversity is a good thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever expect to be, I mean you, you said from a young age you were interested in cattle and stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would your young self say about where you’re at now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, man. I think he’d say he’s proud of me. I think. I don’t know. Either that or … You got a 50/50 chance.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, did you ever expect to be doing what you’re doing now?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. So, you’ll get a kick out of this. So, like I said, my father-in-law helped me buy our original home place. That was a gentlemen’s agreement hee and I had. My wife wasn’t even really privy to that when we did it, but he kept asking me like, “Where’s your business plan? How are you going to model this? How are you going to make this work?” I had never really ever gave him one.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think now when he comes and visits, to be honest with you, I think he went into it thinking, “All right. I’ll help this kid out. He can work a job in town and do it part time and this and that,” but we’ve turned it into something that it’s a full-time job not only for me, but we have three full-time employees also. I think it probably blows his mind more than it does mine. So, I mean, I didn’t-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you had more faith in yourself.

Camas Uebelacker:
I did. I knew that if we got a shot, I could take care of cattle. That’s what we’re good at, and that’s, like I said, that’s because we care for them so well that’s why we exist. I mean, we have an extremely low death loss, a really good conversion, a high average daily gain. We have everything that a customer wants, and we have the great facility to do it. It’s clean, it’s tidy. When they drive in, we have an open door policy. There’s no secrets. If they got a question, come find me and we’ll answer it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I have that with my bank, too. They’re welcome anytime. I think that’s the other beauty of our industry is there’s, literally, I mean, there’s no hiding anything. I mean, it’s all out in the open, right? I mean, I can’t tell them like, “Man, look how good my corn crop is.” How are you going to hide 200 acres of corn, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they can drive by and be like, “Man, I can see you can grow corn,” or “That looks like crap.”

Dillon Honcoop:
“What did he do?”

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. So, it’s an open door policy, right? “Come on, drive by, take a look. We’ll tell you what happened or we’ll go take a look at it,” but especially on the feedlot side of it, when they drive through, I’m never nervous. We’ve got nothing to hide. I encourage them to come. They come once a week and it’s a cool deal. We drive through, we eat lunch and go on about our day.

Camas Uebelacker:
The younger me, I don’t know. Maybe the younger me should have said, “You should’ve started this younger.” I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud of what I do every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you would’ve never gotten that break with the wheat?

Camas Uebelacker:
With the wheat or even the opportunity to buy the place? I couldn’t tell you. At hindsight, I have no idea what I’d be doing. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10 years. I don’t know what it’ll grow into.

Camas Uebelacker:
The other thing that I think a lot of younger guys need to remember or need to get the mentality because all my neighbors, they’re all really good farmers. They’ve got modern equipment. Everyone’s … In this day and age, if you’re still farming, you’re a good farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have to be to survive.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. I think of the guys that were struggling and for whatever reason, crop loss knocked them out or age or any of those things., I mean, if they’re still going in this day and age, they’re doing a damn fine job, and that’s the bottom line because we have all the regulation in the world on us. Everybody we’re trying to feed thinks we’re trying to kill them, and it’s some of the most suppressed prices we’ve ever had with the highest costs on everything else we’ve ever had.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, somebody’s doing something right, right? I think the younger me knowing what I know now would have said buy more land 10 years ago if it was at all possible, but it wasn’t. So, I think that’s what I would have said.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think of the impossible burger beyond meat?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I could get on my soapbox on this, and this could go a couple of different ways, but the beauty of America is you get a choice, right? So, if you want to eat that, eat it, but don’t knock me for not eating it, and I’m not going to knock you for eating it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I I think that that is good marketing. I think if the person that wants to eat that should really look at what’s actually in it. I don’t think it’s as great as for the environment as what is in beef or how beef is raised. I’m not going to throw stats out there and stuff, but the the US cow herd and the US cattle feeding industry feeds more people today with less cattle because we’re so efficient at it and good at it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I don’t see how making something out of 900 or I don’t even know. I’m not going to say numbers, but I don’t know how many products are in an impossible burger, but it’s a lot. Beef is beef. So, you want to eat it, eat it. I won’t. No way.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you say to folks say across the cascades in Seattle who are a little skeptical about where their beef comes from or where their food in general comes from? What’s your message to those people?

Camas Uebelacker:
I think if I had something to tell them, I would say that be proud of where you live in Washington. The packing houses that we do have here are the highest quality grade and some of the highest yielding plants in the United States. So, your Washington farmers and cattle feeders are on the nationwide level are higher than most. So, if they’re my neighbors across the hill, you should be proud, proud to live here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can they trust you to provide them safe food?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, yeah, all day long, all day long. There’s a lot of checks in place that, I mean, it’s mind-boggling when you tour a processing facility where they harvest cattle, the lengths that they go to to make sure that that product is safe for somebody to eat, the recall state, the stuff that they have. If there isn’t a need for a recall, the things that are in place for that, it’s amazing. I mean, it’s a very safe, very clean, very well-managed, very well-handled industry.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’ve got a guy that we actually feed cattle for always says this. He says, “Everybody wants their food produced like it was by their grandpa.” The truth of the matter is you don’t want your food produced like it is today. You want it going to be produced like it’s going to be tomorrow.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, this stuff that we do now is so cutting edge in comparison to even when I first started and the evolution of even processing facilities, the feeding industry, I mean, it’s amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re saying you don’t want the stuff the way that your grandpa produced it?

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why not? What’s wrong with that?

Camas Uebelacker:
Well, I mean, for one, we’ve got refrigeration. We can freeze stuff. We can do all. I mean, we’ve got all this modern technology at our fingertips that we can trace stuff, we can track stuff, we can test things. We have all of these insurances in place to make sure that when I sell my animal to a consumer or through the packing process and it ends up on a consumer’s plate, I would be happy if they had to look at my face on the package when they opened it. I’d be proud to put my name on it. I mean, I believe in it that well. It’s a safe quality, well-produced, well-managed product.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t the idea, though, that, “Oh, back in grandpa’s day or even dad, previous generation, a generation ago, the operations were smaller and it was maybe more hands on with the farmer. It was maybe more environmentally friendly because of that.” You’re saying that’s not true?

Camas Uebelacker:
I would say that the way we monitor and how we utilize the things that we have at our fingertips today are better. Like I said, my small facility feed 65,000 people. My grandpa sure as hell didn’t do that and he had the same amount of land. So, with what we produce in a narrow window of time, I mean, the US farmers, US ranchers, US cattle feeders, we produce a surplus.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, we rely on an export market. We’re good at making food, really good at it to the point that we can feed everybody here and still have them complain about it, but we can still sell it over overseas and we can feed other countries. It’s phenomenal. So, no.

Camas Uebelacker:
If we go back to that, I would rather those people that are saying that they should have to pick out who starves to death, not me. I don’t want to. I’m going to keep making it, but that’s not the road that you can go down to feed the masses of people that we have. You can’t. That’s not the answer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family. You talked about your wife and she’s very supportive of what you do. You have kids, too, now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep. My wife’s awesome. She works in town full-time at an agriculture bank. She’s been there ever since we started this. So, she’s been there about 12 years. Got three kids. My daughter, she’ll be nine in November. My son just turned six, and I got another daughter that just turned two here in July. So, yeah. I got three of them running around.

Dillon Honcoop:
I bet that can be a zoo.

Camas Uebelacker:
It is. It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know it is around my house, anyway. I’ve got little munchkins, too.

Camas Uebelacker:
They’re all into different stuff. My daughter likes soccer and she’s about a year and a half away from being a black belt karate. My son just wants to play basketball and ride four wheelers. My youngest, she just likes to color. So, I mean, just color and pet the dogs. That’s it. So, they’re all very unique. It’s pretty cool. I mean, we’ve got a little orchard here back at the house, and they’ve got chickens and rabbits and goats and horses and cats, and we’ve got a little greenhouse.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they got chores every morning that they got to do before they go to school. They got them every night when they come home. Something as simple as feeding three cats can take an hour because you get sidetracked by … I mean, the cool part, I love where I’m raising him. We can throw them outside and there’s nothing that’s going to hurt, I mean, they’re safe, and they can go be kids.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you see any of them becoming farmers or ranchers following in your footsteps?

Camas Uebelacker:
My daughter shows some interest in the health side of animals. She’s not a big fan when we ship them, but she likes the health side of it. So, I don’t know if she’d ever become a veterinarian or not, but I think if she was going to lean towards something in agriculture, it would be more on the animal health side of things.

Camas Uebelacker:
My son, it’s equipment. He likes tractors, he likes loaders, he likes bulldozers and he likes the circle irrigation. He’s wired to know why that stuff works, but he tells me all the time he wants to be a farmer. My youngest daughter, I think, she’s only two. So, she’s still learning how to talk.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. See where she goes when she gets into, really, with all of them. When it comes time, and let’s say your son keeps doing this farmer thing, wants to keep doing this farmer thing, what are you going to tell him?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, it’s funny you say that. I’ve sat down with my wife before and we’ve had that conversation like you were saying in those low times. I think to myself, “There’s no way in hell I would wish this upon my kids.” It’s so much easier to go get a job, work for somebody else, find a different trade, but then there’s the great days where you get all your jobs done and it’s noon and, you got all this land to enjoy. So, it wouldn’t be a decision to make lightly that come home and farm because you’re going to make all this money and life’s going to be great. That isn’t the case, but you’ll make a living and it’s an interesting part of the US economy where less than 2% of us in ag feed 98% of the US or the world. I mean, it’s pretty cool.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, when we get together like our cattle feeders association, the joke is we can fit everybody in the super cab pickup because there were many of us, right? It’s a small industry in the Northwest but it’s very significant. I mean, we feed it. There’s a lot of cattle on feed in Washington, but I would have no shame and encouraging my son or my daughter, I mean, any of them, any kid to get involved in ag. I think there’s a great future in it. I think people are going to keep having babies and there’s going to be more of this that we have to feed.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I think I would encourage him. I do think that in the future, smaller acreage farms are going to be more viable. I think it will be easier, I shouldn’t say easier, but I think it’ll be more financially stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you say that? A lot of people are saying the opposite of that, that things are just going to keep getting bigger.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I disagree, and the reason I do is because there’s just going to be more people and if you can produce a certain amount of food off of one or two acres and make a little bit of live and doing it, I mean, by all means, go do it, right? So, I mean you’ve got other states that are in droughts that are huge producers of vegetable crops that people eat. The beauty of Eastern Washington is we’ve got water and there is a great future in this area for my kids to come back and do, and I think that the opportunity to be there on a smaller scale also.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think big farms are going to be big. That’s just how it is, but behind all of those big farms, I mean, all the farms that are around me are big farms, and I know those people that own those and run those, they’re my neighbors, right? It’s still a family farm, but they might farm 6,000 acres or 11,000 acres or 20,000 acres, but it’s still a husband and a wife and kids that are keeping that ball rolling.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s cool because we’ve been here long enough now that I’m seeing some of those kids are coming back and they’re good kids and they’re working hard and the employees enjoy them. They have a little maybe a different outlook than their dad did, “Dad, you can’t work them on Sundays like this. Let’s give them a half day or get them on a schedule.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Ag has evolved a lot in that manner as well. They’re not bad jobs. They’re great jobs. They pay really well. Matter of fact, when the minimum wage increases in our state have happened, it didn’t affect anybody out here because nobody makes minimum wage. If you are a skilled worker that has a talent or even a drive, no one’s going to start at minimum wage. It just doesn’t exist.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I would encourage this younger generation coming up. I mean, buckle up, it’s going to be a ride, but I think there’s definitely a future in it, for sure. People got to eat.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s hard to have more leverage than that issue.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right? Yeah. I mean, it’s tough. Like I said, it’s hard to hear people complain with a full belly. It’s hard to even fathom that, that they can sit there after they ate lunch and say that we’re bad for the environment and all of these. It’s frustrating. This is the easiest way to say that.

Camas Uebelacker:
I read this stuff on Facebook and it just drives me nuts. I mean, maybe I need to try harder on that social media deal, but I just wish they’d call me and be like, “Hey, man. Is this true?”

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m like, “No. Hell no. That’s not true. Where do you hear that or where did you read that or who even is dumb enough to write that?” I encourage everybody. Ask a farmer, ask a cattle feeder, ask a rancher, but just ask them. We do this every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if somebody does ask you and you tell them, and tell them the facts as you know them and that still doesn’t change their mind? What do you say to them then?

Camas Uebelacker:
I did my part. I tried. Beyond that, there’s really nothing more that you can do. I’m not going to get on a soapbox because I produce beef and tell everybody that’s a vegan. That’s a terrible idea. I’m not that guy. That’s your choice, man, but don’t beat me over my choice. I’m not going to beat you over yours. Just don’t do it to me. I think that there’s a certain, a very small percentage of organizations make the loudest noise, right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are the ones that there’s no way in the world that I as a cattle feeder in my remote area where we’re at will ever change their mind. If I even did engage with them, all it did would probably just stoke the fire. I’m not that guy. I mean, we’re just going to do what we do, but if somebody is on the fence and has some questions like that, I would encourage him to look up some of these associations.

Camas Uebelacker:
Washington Cattle Feeders Associations got a website. Washington Beef Commissions got a website. I mean, all these. The information is out there. Just look in the right place, please. That’s what I would encourage.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for opening up, talking about your family and your history and your farm and everything. It’s really been a great conversation and really interesting. I appreciate it.

Camas Uebelacker:
No problem, man. Happy to do it.

Announcer:
This is Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, does a conversation like that make you want to get into farming? I know. If you’re like me at all, it leaves you conflicted because part of it sounds so incredible to be growing food that people eat. I don’t know. Maybe is that just because I grew up on a farm? It’s in my blood. I know that for sure, but then part of a conversation like I had with Camas makes it sound pretty scary and like, “Why would I ever want to sign up for that? That’s something that would take over my life and could potentially lead to really hard times and a huge amount of hours and a lot of physical pain and the threat of bankruptcy.” Why?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like he said, at some points he just feels like, “I should just work a regular job, clock in, clock out, and this whole farming thing is not worth it,” but then he has his good days where he’s like, “Wow. I wouldn’t want my life to be any different.”

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d love to hear your reaction to a conversation like this or any of the conversations that we have. Share your comments on our social media posts with this or other episodes or shoot me an email. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email. My first name Dillon is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N, not the Bob Dylan way, the Matt Dillon way, if that makes sense. Not that I necessarily identify with either of those people, but people always ask. So, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. We’ve got some really cool conversations coming up in soon weeks here, too, and more and more about how COVID-19 is impacting the farming world and the people in the farming world, both on a personal level and then on a business level and even beyond business like on a bigger economy level.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s going to happen here is pretty unclear at this point and there are a lot of people who are worried. In some ways, just to give an advanced heads up of some of the things I’m hearing from the people who we’re hopefully going to be having on the podcast here in coming weeks, there may be some really cool opportunities right now for local food and farmers because of what’s happening with this virus, and the way it’s changing markets, and the way it’s causing people to think differently about their food and where they live and if they’re secure, but especially with what’s happening to the bigger national and global markets.

Dillon Honcoop:
There are some very scary times ahead for farming as well. I’m also very worried about a lot of local farmers. So, it’s a mixed bag. We’re going to be hearing more about it certainly every week as we go because it’s on everybody’s mind right now. So, expect that in the next few weeks coming up as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for joining me on this journey of mine to really get to know these farmers of all different stripes, as well as other people in the food chain, the food system, whatever you want to call it, other people behind our food here in Washington state. That’s what the Real Food Real People Podcast here is all about.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop. It’s a privilege to have you join me for these conversations. Listen in, download, subscribe on whatever you’re subscribed on if you haven’t already. I sure would appreciate it. I sure would appreciate a share on social media, too. If anything that we talk about on the podcast, one of our guests says, whatever, if it strikes a chord with you, I’d really love it if you shared it on your social media platform. It just helps us grow this conversation to more and more people. That’s part of our mission is to get more and more people reconnected to their food and where and who it comes from.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the more people that we can get plugged in on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, the better job we can do to change the landscape of at least people’s awareness about food and farming here in Washington State. So, I’d really appreciate that and don’t miss next week as we continue here on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, and I should also thank our sponsors. Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Camas Uebelacker part 1 | #016 03/30/2020

He didn't grow up on a farm, but he started a feedlot in Eastern Washington. Camas Uebelacker has a passion for his job and doing the right thing, and he answers some hard questions about how feedlots really work. In the process he breaks some negative stereotypes about how beef is produced here in Washington.

Transcript

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s nothing more noble than feeding somebody. If I met some guy on the side of the road, he’s hungry or whatever, and I brought him home and fed him, I did him a bigger solid than giving him five bucks. That’s going to last a little longer than five. For me to be able to say that I feed 65,000 people… and it’s something that it’s so important to us that every employee that we have knows it.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Feedlots, it’s a dirty word right now, at least in some people’s minds as far as the way to produce beef, but what is the truth on feedlots? Are they bad for animals? Are they bad for the environment? I wanted to talk with someone who actually ran a feedlot here in Washington to find out what they’re all about, and what they do, and to ask some hard questions.

Dillon Honcoop:
I connected with Camas Uebelacker with C&G Cattle Company over in Othello, and we had an incredible conversation. His answers to some of my hard questions were not at all what I expected and we ended up talking about climate change, and the environment, and taking care of animals, and all of these things that you would not expect with the stereotype that feedlots have.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I encourage you to listen to this conversation with an open mind. I know he changed my perspective on quite a few things. Again, his name is Camas Uebelacker. He’s our guest this week and next. I had to split this in two parts. We had such a good conversation, it just kept going and there was a lot to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
So this is the first part of our conversation about how beef is produced here in Washington and in a lot of parts of the United States. But as you’ll hear him say, he thinks we have something special with how we do it here in Washington, and you’ll find out that he cares deeply about these issues that people are worried about with feedlots.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for joining us this week. Please subscribe on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and all those other players. Don’t forget to follow us on social media. I’m Dillon Honcoop, again your host here on Real Food, Real People. Grew up on a farm in Western Washington and now I’m journeying all over the State to places like Camas’ operation to get to know what really drives the people who are producing our food here in Washington and how they’re really taking care of the things that we hold so dear; the environment, how they’re taking care of people, how they’re taking care of animals.

Dillon Honcoop:
So sit back, enjoy this first part of our conversation. Really cool stuff here from Camas.

Dillon Honcoop:
You come from a family of farmers or what’s your-

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… background in this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I don’t. I’m first generation so I started our operation. My wife and I bought it in 2007 and my father-in-law helped us buy it and that’s how we got the ball rolling on what it is we’re doing now.

Dillon Honcoop:
How old were you when you started this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I was 27.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is a 27 year old guy who hasn’t been in farming do to so start?

Camas Uebelacker:
I had an interest in it and I went to college and had an Ag background in it. Then when I got out of school, I worked for a ranch for a while, always mainly in livestock. And then did that, worked for a feedlot, went back to college, got a better degree, worked for a bigger feedlot, and then this place came up for sale and I went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you go to college? Same place both times?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I went to Walla Walla Community College and Montana State is where I graduated from.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you went to college the first time, what was your plan?

Camas Uebelacker:
To be completely honest, I really didn’t have one. I knew I wanted to get a degree. I come from the age of kids where they just pound that everyone has to go into college.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Same here.

Camas Uebelacker:
Trades are super important, even more so now than they were when I went to school, but that was the time, that’s what you did when you got out of high school, so I did it. I had a great job in high school. I was working as a diesel mechanic and had all the options to just continue to work and go to school for that, but I didn’t want to lay on my back on a concrete floor until I was 60.

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus, I think they all told us at that time, “Well, if you really going to get a good job then you got to go to college.”

Camas Uebelacker:
I would never discourage anybody from going, but that is not necessarily the case these days. The trades are super important and pay in a lot of circumstances better than any education that you would get.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know about your experience, but I know I have plenty of high school class mates of mine that didn’t go to college and got into the trades and right away they were making more money than me and they’re still making more-

Camas Uebelacker:
And they don’t have student loans and everything [crosstalk 00:05:11] else. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they had the comfort in some ways of knowing what they were doing right away rather than, “I’m not sure what I’m going to read.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Or you got to go find a job and work my way up and you can pretty well start and within a few years be going.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you grow up?

Camas Uebelacker:
Outside of Yakima, Wiley City.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. But not a farm family. What’d your dad do?

Camas Uebelacker:
My dad was a college professor at Central and my mom, she was mainly in the education field.

Dillon Honcoop:
So both sort of teachers.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And did they want you to become a teacher too?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. It wasn’t anything like that. My folks were divorced and I had a stepdad that was real into cattle and that’s how I got the interest and I just liked it. It was like every day it felt like a Saturday. And it still does, so I just.

Dillon Honcoop:
At what age were you starting to think about even just like being on a ranch? When did you first get the chance to go out and do that?

Camas Uebelacker:
In all reality, I was probably 15, 16, somewhere right in there and just really into it. I like cattle and I like the work and it was interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you lived in town but got to go out to a farm?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. We always lived out. It wasn’t like I was just straight out of town, but no, we had some acreage and we always had horses and cattle and things like that growing up, but never on a scale of what we do now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there you were, young kid, which… I grew up on a berry farm and both my parents had grown up on dairy farms, so I’ve been around animals a bit too, but I always thought the ranch and cattle thing was cool.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you’re young, it sounds cool. Right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was it what you thought it was when you were a kid? What did you find out from there until-

Camas Uebelacker:
I’ve pretty well done every gamut where you’d take three horses and ride out, and camp for a week, and check cattle. That’s really cool for the first week and then it’s, “Man, it’d be nice to be home and get a shower.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Like a real cowboy deal. You’ve done that.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. And it was fun and it was definitely one of those things when you’re 20, if you’re into it, I would encourage anybody, just go for it, man. But the reality is those jobs are there, they’re still there. The West is still alive and doing cool stuff like that, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you did that here in Washington?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, that was in the Dakotas.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the Dakotas.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. Went back there for a couple of years and that was before all the oil field stuff, when minimum wage was still 475 and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah, it was pretty fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that where you were doing the cowboy thing?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I think it was probably less than that because I was on salary, but you can’t win them all. But no, it was cool. It was a great experience. That stuff’s neat and it evolved. Matter of fact, when I got done with that job, I moved home and I was going to take a couple of weeks off, and I have an uncle that has a feedlot out here and he asked if I could come help for high moisture corn harvest, supposed to last two weeks and I ended up working for him for two years.

Camas Uebelacker:
That’s how I really got the interest in the feedlot. I was just blown away by what you can do with an animal in a fairly short period of time. But the day I started working there, that’s the best I was ever going to be, so that’s why I went back to school to think if maybe I could get a job at a bigger yard, managing it or something like that, and I did that.

Camas Uebelacker:
I ended up working for a bigger feedlot for a couple of years. I really enjoyed it, but then when the opportunity came up for me to do my own, I jumped. I went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that scary?

Camas Uebelacker:
Super, man. I’ve never signed on a line and had my name look so shaky. That’s a lot of money and as young, no one really gave me, I guess credibility. I had a good name in the industry and that’s part of the reason that we’re where we’re at now is because somebody gave me a shot. And we’ve had that same customer almost since day one. As they’ve grown, we’ve grown with them to what it is now.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you thinking at that time? You decided like, I’m going to do this.

Camas Uebelacker:
The crazy thing is, if you got enough guts, anybody could… You could build a feedlot and put a sign up front says, “I’m a feedlot.” Doesn’t mean anybody’s going to send any cattle. And we’re accustomed feedlot so we don’t necessarily own the cattle. We might own a percentage or something like that, but to be in the custom business, it’s a pretty big leap of faith.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’d be one thing if I owned all my own cows and I put them into my own feedlot and had all that going, but I don’t have that, so we’re strictly custom. So your name means a lot, it’s still like that. Everything that we did was, like I said, in 2007 and it was done on a handshake.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that? To buy the land? To buy the machinery?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, that was to start taking in custom cattle for the customer that we had. Like I said, you can have a feedlot, but it doesn’t mean anybody’s going to send you anything. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So did you have the land then or?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. I had bought it and I wasn’t really sure how this was all going to work out. I still had a great relationship with the feedlot that I was working for and thinking, well, maybe I’ll knock on that door. But the place that I bought was so dilapidated and run down that there wasn’t a panel that would hold an animal, so I had a bunch of work to do.

Camas Uebelacker:
So I worked full time at the feedlot I was working at and then in the afternoons I’d get off work and I’d come work on mine. And I did that for about a year and it just got to be too much. We harvested our first wheat crop that year and that was… I think I sold soft white wheat for like almost 10 bucks a bushel.

Camas Uebelacker:
That was in 2008, I believe and that gave us a boost to be able to go buy some more boards and posts and fix some more stuff. And then we fired it up and it’s been running ever since.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know prices for wheat. Is that a good price?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah it’s crazy. Yeah. I think that was the highest, I think it’s ever been since I’ve farmed.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it at now, and you know?

Camas Uebelacker:
I think it’s just right at five bucks or under 5 bucks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Half of what your-

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. In all honesty, farming cattle, I wouldn’t say that it takes a lot of luck, but a guy needs a good break every once in a while for it to keep running. And that particular year was our first year and we got that boost. I’m not going to say it set the stage for the entire process, but it was damn sure a good boost that a guy needed.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want to talk more eventually about your family and stuff? Did you have family at that time or was it just you starting this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I was in engaged.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were engaged.

Camas Uebelacker:
My wife and I weren’t even married yet and we were crazy enough to buy it together, and I don’t… Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was she saying at that time? Was she sure she’s [crosstalk 00:11:43]-

Camas Uebelacker:
She’s awesome. I married absolute big, it’s not even funny. But no, she was very encouraging. She knew I could do the work, she knew that it was a good opportunity. The cool part about it is she’s in the banking industry and I won’t say names, but I can’t bank where she works because it’s a conflict of interest.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
But I was really good at the work and she was really good at helping me make the right business decisions.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
I really wish I wouldn’t have got an animal science degree, I wish I would’ve got a banking or economics or some sort of business degree as opposed… Because the stuff that we do everyday out in the feedlot is stuff that you will learn on the job, or a veterinarian, or a nutritionist, or somebody can help you with, but running your own business, you really need to be intimate with it and know that if I buy this piece of equipment, it’s going to put me back a year, or two, or five, or how am I going to pay for this?

Dillon Honcoop:
And is that worth it?

Camas Uebelacker:
Is it the right decision to make-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Camas Uebelacker:
… because potentially you might be the best cattle feeder on the earth, but if you don’t make the right business decisions you know it’s going to sink you.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you made the right decision with that soft white wheat?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. That went really well. That was a good move. And I contracted at all at the peak of the market and sold it and it was awesome. I was like, “Man, I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do this. This is easy.” I did start at the right time. Ag was going to be good and it has been good after that point for another six years or so, and then it peaked out and has been on a a steady decline.

Camas Uebelacker:
But it gets you for those first like six, seven years where you’re paying off a lot of equipment, a lot of land debt, a lot of just debt period, and I feel pretty fortunate that we started when we did because to do it on a day like today where the markets are down and it’s a lot tougher.

Camas Uebelacker:
Land’s worth more now, rents are higher. It’d be pretty tough.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re saying it’s still pretty darn scary to jump in both feet?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh yeah. Looking back at it now, I can’t believe I did it. And I don’t know how I made it work, but we did.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like your first year was a lot of hours for sure.

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh man. [crosstalk 00:13:59] It was crazy. And like I said, I got a good wife. She was cool with it and-

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a day were you putting in when you were working basically another full job?

Camas Uebelacker:
I used to have to co-feed at that other feedlot and so I would be there… We had to be there at 4:30, and then I’d get off about 3:30 or 4:00, and then I’d come to my yard and work on it until probably 8:00 at night and go home.

Dillon Honcoop:
I do the math on that. That’s a couple of hours right there.

Camas Uebelacker:
It was tough, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that was every day?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. At that yard we worked a six and two schedule, so six days on, two days off. And then obviously if it’s just me, there’s no days off here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
I did that for about a year and a half. Matter of fact, I think it was three years before I ever even hired an employee to help me. I needed a break. It was pretty tough, but like I said, my wife was on board and we went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain what it is you actually do. You’ve been talking, you have C&G Cattle Company-

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… you run a feedlot to a lot of people. That’s a dirty word-

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… but what does it really mean?

Camas Uebelacker:
My operation is what in the industry, what we call it, backgrounding yard or… Basically what we do is we bring in light cattle that would have just been weaned off a cow, and we bring them in at 550, 600 pounds, and then we’ll take those to 900 pounds. And then after that, those will go to a finish feedlot where they put a finish on the animal.

Camas Uebelacker:
And then those cattle are typically harvested at this time, 1,450 pounds. So they’ll take them for quite a while longer after I have them. But what we do is we get the health straight on them and we have a really good solid vaccine program that we use on them, a good feed program. And we basically get them healthy, get them eating, getting them straightened out.

Camas Uebelacker:
And then when the finish feedlot takes them, it’s pretty push button for them. It’s really easy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you mean straightened out? What does that involve?

Camas Uebelacker:
My specialty and I guess why I exist in the world is we’re pretty good at high risk cattle, meaning that those that are cattle that came from a ranch, that they take them to a sale yard. Our buyers put them together into usually truck load sizes and we buy from Canada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California and they’ll be brought in into my place.

Camas Uebelacker:
And so from there, we don’t really necessarily know any vaccine history on them. We don’t know if they’ve ever even had a vaccine. We know where they came from because most of them are branded, but beyond that, we know very little.

Dillon Honcoop:
High risk, what’s the risk? The risk is to you?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, the risk is to a customer. We try to mitigate that risk as much as we can with the protocols and programs that we’ve put in place over the years. It’s crazy how much it changes. I wouldn’t say so much year to year, but from when I first started doing this to now, we’ve fed enough cattle that we have a pretty solid program put together.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s it’s definitely, I would say less… I shouldn’t say less on the technical side, but it’s it’s a little bit more… It’s a slower process. We’d go real easy with them, a lot of high roughage diets. We’re not trying to push them, we’re not shooting for a really high average daily gain.

Camas Uebelacker:
Basically we want to get them eating, make sure they’re healthy, lots of access to fresh water. We have a really intense and very technical mineral package that we put together because a lot of cattle that come from different areas of Washington, or Oregon, or Idaho, certain areas of those States the grass is deficient in minerals and it can affect their immune system.

Camas Uebelacker:
So over the years, that’s one thing that we’ve really developed. It’s all key laded vitamins and minerals. It’s readily available. It’s in every load of feed that we produce and we’ll get those cattle caught back up on nutrition-wise what they need and then they stay healthy and put on pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, these are cattle that have been out on the range somewhere?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yup. Yeah. These would be calves that would come off of a cow that were grazing. It could be in the high desert of Oregon, it could be in the Plains of BC, or it could have been… We don’t get a lot of coast cattle, but if we buy out of central Oregon, sometimes we’ll get coast cattle off of like Coos Bay, those areas.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so when you talk about high risk and risk to the customer, the customer would be whatever operation is going to buy them to finish them and harvest them?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. The risk would be basically the day they buy them from the sale yard. So they’re going to own them all the way through. You’re going to feed them and take care of them for them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Camas Uebelacker:
And under that feeding care is our program that we basically get them straightened out, and healthy, and looking like good cattle.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to what I said, some people feel like feedlot’s dirty word. What’s your response to that?

Camas Uebelacker:
I love what I do. We don’t have the prettiest aspect of the livestock world. A ranch has green grass, rolling hills, pine trees and everything else. We’ve gotten metal corrals and concrete feed bunks. So it’s not the prettiest thing, but the thing that blows my mind every year is at the end of the year when I get done and I sit down and I look at how many cattle we put through there, the pounds of beef that we put on animals and all of that, it’s typically if you use the average of what a consumer eats every year, my facility feeds about 65,000 people a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
65,000 people worth of beef.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep. That’s my response. I don’t really know how else to say that. In my opinion, there’s no nothing more noble than feeding somebody. If I met some guy on the side of the road, he’s hungry or whatever and I brought him home and fed him, I did him a bigger sell than giving him five bucks. That’s going to last a little longer than five.

Camas Uebelacker:
For me to be able to say that I feed 65,000 people and it’s something that it’s so important to us that every employee that we have knows it because… And the cool part about a feedlot is we literally use the most modern technology that anybody has in the Ag industry. But we also still use the old school stuff where somebody sat on a horse. And there’s very few industries that you can say that.

Camas Uebelacker:
Row crop farming, it’s you’re climbing a tractor and you’ve got the most modern tillage equipment and all that, and I farm and we have that. But when it gets down to the feedlot, it’s a different mentality. It is long hours, it’s dirty, dusty, stinky work, but food is a dirty, dusty, stinky job and I’m happy to be part of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you do think about it in terms of the food that you produce for people? Your team with the things that you’re doing on a day to day basis, that’s in the back of your mind?

Camas Uebelacker:
Absolutely. And it’s also one of those industries when people say, “Every job here’s important.” And I agree with that in most industries, but I would say at my feedlot, that rings more true than anywhere because we wash the water tanks regularly and that’s typically when you hire a guy, that’s where he starts.

Camas Uebelacker:
If he wants to move up through the chain of command and eventually be a pen rider, or a feed truck driver, or some of those jobs, or a processor or any of those, that’s where you start, but that job is very important. If you don’t watch the tanks, there’s a potential that you could have sick cattle or something like that. So it is pretty cool that it is a neat industry, a neat trade that literally every job there that gets done every day on a daily basis is important and you feed people.

Camas Uebelacker:
Whether or not they want to eat it or not, but that’s the beauty of America. They can choose to buy beef or they can choose to buy other protein products, but the people that choose to buy it, I’m feeding them and I’m cool with that, and I’ll keep doing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think more and more people, as much controversy as there is about as far as some people go with different takes on beef, I think there is also an awareness that people are coming around to that it’s an important protein source.

Camas Uebelacker:
It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
And not all protein is created equal.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, no, it’s not. Whether or not you choose to buy it, that’s the beauty of where we live. There’s more options out there than you can ever imagine. What I was telling you earlier in the beef sector, there’s conventional, there’s organic, there’s grass-fed, there’s natural, there’s all these different segments.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I don’t really care what you eat as long as you’re eating beef. I’m team beef. You never take your wife out to a chicken dinner.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ll remember that.

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s a reason they make a steak night, not a chicken.

Dillon Honcoop:
Chicken night.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m just joking. But to go back to where your initial question, they’re not beautiful, but they’re designed to be extremely efficient. They’re designed to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Feedlot.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. Not waste. I can tell you exactly how much my corn silage pit is going to shrink in the next 12 months. We’re down to the pounds, and extremely efficient. We’re in a business of the margin is literally penny sometimes, so if I make a decision to change a feed additive that would maybe help in the immune system, typically the salesman is going to tell me, “It’s in sense per head per day.”

Camas Uebelacker:
And that might not sound like a lot. Right? On one head you’re like, “ell, it’s going to cost me two cents more per head per day.” But when you spread that over 4,000 head and you’re going to do it over the next 90 days, well that’s a chunk of change.

Dillon Honcoop:
You say feed additive, I’m sure some people might say, “Oh, what kind of chemicals are you given these animals?”

Camas Uebelacker:
No, no, it’s nothing like that and any feed additive that we do feed would have a zero day withdrawal because it’s in the feed. Antibiotics, if we do [doctrine animal 00:23:48], it has a withdrawal. Those are set by the FDA. We have to follow. No animals with any residue are ever shipped, can’t do it. It’s illegal.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying any beef can’t have antibiotics in it?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. And I’ll even help out the other industries, any meat product that you would see in a supermarket cannot have any antibiotic residue in it. It is illegal and it won’t have it in it. That’s why we have the safety checks. That’s why America’s awesome. Other countries, I don’t believe they have… I shouldn’t speak to those countries, but I know for a fact I’ve toured the processing plants, I’ve seen the steps and measures that they go do it and I am 100% proud to say I’m part of that industry.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why is it that some things you see in the grocery store might say antibiotic free and others don’t then?

Camas Uebelacker:
Because it all has to be antibiotic free and it’s a marketing, I shouldn’t say scheme or something like that, but it’s purely marketing. And I would encourage, if someone does have a question, I wouldn’t jump on Google, and I wouldn’t jump on Facebook, and I wouldn’t jump on Instagram, and all those other deals where everyone gets their news now, but I would call a farmer. We’re in the phone book.

Dillon Honcoop:
So this whole like this meat is antibiotic free, it’s a farce because it’s all supposed to be, otherwise it’s illegal?

Camas Uebelacker:
Illegal. It’s all antibiotic free and it’s a marketing ploy. But it’s tugging at the heartstrings of consumers and I don’t think that’s fair. You’re not going to get that from a guy like me, you’re going to get that from the bigger companies that are trying to sell that product.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the feedlot issue, I think one of the things that people worry about or fear and the image that they have in their mind is that animals are not being treated well in a feedlot. You’re talking about getting animals healthy in your feedlot. Where’s the breakdown there? Why is it that people think feedlots are bad for animals?

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying, you’re actually getting them healthy in your feedlot.

Camas Uebelacker:
I guess I can break a day down for you real quick just to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Sure.

Camas Uebelacker:
… make it crystal clear for everybody. We check their feed every morning. My guy that does it starts at 5:30. He drives through, checks every feed bunk, every pen gets checked. At the time when he’s typically doing that, he’ll check the water tanks to make sure they’re full, or not overflowing, or there’s some issue there.

Camas Uebelacker:
Then once the feeding and water and everything’s checked, every pen is checked, so every animal gets looked at. We have developed facilities and updated everything to the point that there isn’t even a hot-shot on my farm. We don’t own one. We don’t need one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hot-shot, what’s that?

Camas Uebelacker:
All the electric prods-

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Camas Uebelacker:
… that everybody thinks that-

Dillon Honcoop:
To get an animal moving?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. We don’t use them, we don’t have them. There’s no need. We’ve updated, we’ve designed, we’ve become… Every guy I have is Beef Quality Assurance certified and part of that training program is moving cattle, loading cattle, unloading cattle, processing cattle. We’re big on it. The cool part is it’s so relaxing when we are doing those things and moving cattle. It isn’t even hard.

Camas Uebelacker:
This isn’t whipping and spurs, scream and yell. This isn’t working cows with your grandpa. We do this every day, we’re good at it, we care about them and literally, I make my living from taking care of them. That’s the whole reason I have a job.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why would you be hurting them, I guess is the question.

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s no damn reason in the world to ever treating an animal ill. We have a saying and it hangs above my shop door that says, “Treat them like they’re yours.” Because we truly are in a custom business where there aren’t our animals, but we do… And the guys that work for me, most of them have been with me a long time and we hold ourselves to a very high standard.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I think we have to, and I think that’s also part of the reason that we’ve grown how we have and we’ve been able to maintain an existing customer for as long as we have. And also grow to be basically the largest grow yard in the Northwest. I’m proud to say that. But we treat every one of them as if we own them.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I’m not going to try to scare people off and throw dollars and cents and “Oh, I have this huge investment in them.” But to boil it down for you, when my feedlot’s full, it’s $4 million in cattle inventory, just cattle. That’s not feed, that’s not anything else. And I’m a 4,000 feedlot. These big guys, the bigger feedlots have even more. So to say that I would ever treat one of them poorly, or deny them water, or fresh feed, or any of that thing is just, it’s asinine.

Camas Uebelacker:
You’re not gonna do it, you can’t. And like I said, the reason we’ve been able to excel and expand and become who we are is because we care for them so well.

Dillon Honcoop:
What you’re saying resonates with what I hear from a lot of farmers and what I know practically to be true, which is, if you want to do well, if you want an animal to produce well, why would you want to abuse them or hurt them? Doesn’t make any sense. But yet there still is this perception that the way that farms are now is just an industrial farming or a factory farm and they’re just pushing animals through, and they’re abusing them.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just going off of what I’m assuming the mindset is here, that they’re abusing them to save money and get more out of them somehow, which-

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re saying that’s backwards?

Camas Uebelacker:
It is. Very much so, and it’s to the point where we also have saying that it’s “Quality feed, quality animal.” I grow the majority of the feed for my feedlot on my own farm ground. I’ve got a neighbor that grows a lot for me, but the other beauty of feedlots is we take products that aren’t typically… They would typically in another industry be waste.

Camas Uebelacker:
One ingredient that I don’t personally feed, but a lot of them would do in the area that we’re at is a French Fries, and they’re called French Fries because it has a black spot on it and McDonald’s won’t sell it. And if you did get it in your French Fries, you might take it back and say, “Hey, this one’s burnt.” But it’s perfectly good cattle feed.

Camas Uebelacker:
So for us to be able to use the byproducts that come from other industries, like we feed a lot of bluegrass straw. Bluegrass straw comes from the grass seed industry that planted your front lawn, or a golf course, or lawns around hotels and all these places that have green grass. It comes from somewhere and we feed a byproduct out of it.

Camas Uebelacker:
Same thing every time you fill up your car with gasoline E85, the other 15% is ethanol and we feed a lot of ethanol by-product. It’s called wet distillers grains. After they extract the part that they’re going to put in gasoline, we feed what’s left over and it’s awesome feed.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would happen to it otherwise?

Camas Uebelacker:
I couldn’t even tell you. With the intent when our government decided that they needed to up the ethanol in it and production went up and people… You can buy it dried, you can buy it in a pellet, you can buy it wet, you can buy it different ways, but it’s all going to end up in animal feed.

Dillon Honcoop:
But other than animal feed, it’s pretty much wouldn’t be good for anything?

Camas Uebelacker:
You’d dump it. But it’s good animal. It’s great animal feed. It’s not just good, it’s great. The potato industry is huge in our area, so there’s a lot of feedlots that feed the potato byproducts. There’s stuff what they call hopper waste, there’s slurry, there’s various parts of the process that prepare that potato for human food. It ends up in a byproduct that feedlots utilize.

Camas Uebelacker:
That’s another cool part of the industry is that, I think they call them upcyclers. I guess if you know it. I always say it’s trash to cash, so we buy those products, we store them here on site and then we feed it.

Dillon Honcoop:
These animals are basically taking, like you talk about this distiller’s waste and they’re turning that, which would otherwise be unusable.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And certainly is not edible.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re turning that into high quality protein for humans-

Camas Uebelacker:
For humans.

Dillon Honcoop:
… to consume.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yup. Yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do you think then about all this, we gotta get rid of beef because it’s using up land, and water, and all these things and causing climate change?

Camas Uebelacker:
I read through those, but the cool part about my feedlot, and I’m going to speak about mine, we reuse everything. So the manure that comes out of my pens goes back on my farm ground. And it’s not raw manure, we typically age it, compost it, and screen it, and then it goes back on as… I remember my grandma always used to buy [Begs Deer Manure 00:32:44]. Well, I make it by the truckload.

Camas Uebelacker:
And we spread that back on our farms at agronomic rates, and the cool part is, is when I started doing that, my fertilizer bill went down close to $30,000 a circle and that comes out of my yard, my feedlot. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s heading towards organic right there.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m pretty much the greenest hippie you’ve ever met. When people say things like that, it really bugs me because we work so hard at making sure that we don’t waste anything. My guys get tired of me telling them, “Hey, quit spill and feed. Make sure he shoveled at. Clean that up. Scrape that into a pile.” The part-

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe that’s just because you’re cheap though.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, it’s efficient. I’m efficient.

Dillon Honcoop:
I just had to give you a hard time.

Camas Uebelacker:
And there’s all this other stuff, when people say that, I look at them and I want to ask them, “Well, what is it that you do to change it? You drove here, you use plastic, you’ve got garbage in your garbage can. What are you doing?” By the way, I farm a couple hundred acres that sequesters carbon.

Camas Uebelacker:
Sometimes when I read that, I just want to say, “You know what? You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help you out.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re not concerned about cows causing climate change-

Camas Uebelacker:
Not at all? Nope. I’m more worried about all the people that drive that probably should just walk. I think that the noise about those things that are coming to people like me that are trying to feed people, I think that maybe those masses should do a little something to change. I think that they do, but I don’t think they do it on the scale that I do. I have a hard time buying it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously, we’re talking about the environment here. What else do you do for the environment? You talked about manure, people have environmental concerns about manure and how it’s handled. You mentioned you put it on your fields, you mentioned agronomic rate. What does that mean?

Camas Uebelacker:
We put on and typically we will fall apply or spring apply manure. And in the area that we’re in, it’s extremely dry. Our average rain fall’s six inches a year, so we don’t typically worry about the leeching into groundwater or anything like that. We’re also 600 feet to ground water, so it’s a ways down there. But the agronomic rate, so if we… We pull soil samples every spring, every fall so we know where we’re at with what the crop would use and what it’s going to need, and we don’t over apply.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you don’t apply beyond what the crop is going to use?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. It’s really cool. Like I said, it’s a cool industry. We’ve got the most modern… The tractors that pull the wagon got GPS, the wagons have scales. I know how many pounds are going on every acre. And the part of the reason is, you want to talk about trash to cash, this has become a valuable product because it’s not just the nitrogen, the N, P and K that’s in it, it’s also all the micronutrients.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a living product that when you apply it to soil, plants, it’s readily available. There is no process that has to go through. So it’s good for ground and it’s to the point now that it’s a saleable product. So when people think that we’re out here just over applying it, there’s really no monetary reason to do that because if you can utilize what it is that you need… Like my farm, I utilize what I need on mine and then if I have leftover I’ll sell it. But if I don’t, I’ll use it.

Camas Uebelacker:
So there is no reason for me to just throw money out the back of my manure spreader just because I have to get rid of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s not a waste?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. Nope. It’s a waste product in the feedlot, but once it hits farm ground, it’s as good as gold.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re big into soil health stuff then?

Camas Uebelacker:
Absolutely, have to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the key to good soil health?

Camas Uebelacker:
A good crop rotation. In our area, our soils are mostly, what they call arid soils it’s a highly… We’re in an arid area, so our soils inherently, they’re low in organic matter, so anytime that we can put that back in, it helps with the water-holding, water penetration, just overall soil health.

Camas Uebelacker:
If we decide to do high moisture corn for harvest, all those corn stocks will go back into the soil. If we choose to do silage, we’ll take the silage off, but we’re going to put compost back on. Over the years that I’ve owned this farm, every year it continues to yield higher, and that’s the goal.

Camas Uebelacker:
There is no reason to just farm it, to farm it, it’s a longterm project and it’s a longterm investment. It’s not cheap to spread manure, it’s not cheap to just apply it. You’re talking, there’s a guy on a tractor, a guy on a loader, you’re talking burning diesel. There’s all those things, but when it’s all said and done, when you talk about the greenhouse gas and all that other stuff, those crops that we’re growing are going to sequester carbon.

Camas Uebelacker:
So I think that my footprint is probably smaller than most people’s. I truly believe that.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Next week in the second half of our conversation with Camas Uebelacker, we find out more about his family and what he sees as the future of farming and the issues around producing food here in Washington State. He has more answers coming up next week that you probably wouldn’t expect to hear from a guy who’s running a feedlot.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s really cool and encouraging to hear people across the board breaking stereotypes of the things that they care about, the things that are important to them and what really drives their operations. So a big thank you again to Camas for opening up with us and sharing some of this. And I’m really excited to next week share the second half of our conversation again with Camas Uebelacker of C&G Cattle Company in Othello, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
As I’m always reminding you, make sure to follow us on social media, Real Food, Real People Podcast on Facebook, on Instagram as well. I think the handle is… What is it? @rfrp_podcast. That’s the handle on Instagram as well as on Twitter, so we’d love it and we’d really appreciate it if you followed us there, shared our content.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re just trying to get these stories to more people in Washington so they can start to hear from the real farmers that are producing our food here. Rather than having to hear from anyone else, why not straight from the horse’s mouth, as the saying goes. We really appreciate you supporting the podcast in that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
And of course, always welcome feedback on any of those social media platforms as well as dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. That’s my email address. Feel free to shoot me an email anytime you want. If you’ve got a thought on the show, maybe you didn’t like something that someone said or you have a different perspective, maybe you know somebody with a different perspective on an issue that I should have on the program.

Dillon Honcoop:
We want to hear from all perspectives here on Real Food, Real People, and we really appreciate you following us and listening along. We’ll catch you next week for the second half with Camas Uebelacker.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, and I should also think our sponsors. Real Food, Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming; giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington; supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Javier Valencia | #011 02/24/2020

Although he grew up on a farm, Javier Valencia was dead-set against following in his father's footsteps. He shares his story of how he came back to his roots and finally understood his dad's passion for farming.

Transcript

Javier Valencia:
First couple of years, I was intimidated. I’d see people like, “A young, tattooed Hispanic. What are you?” You know, “You don’t know what you’re doing,” and I believe that’s pushed me more. People saying, “Hey, you don’t have experience. Hey, you don’t have a reputation for yourself,” but I guess we made a name for ourselves, just with hard work.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week on Real Food, Real People. We get to know Javier Valencia. He grew up as a farm kid in Eastern Washington, but he did not want to be a farmer when he grew up. Well, guess what? He is and he’s so passionate. He talks about his struggles with weight and with being a troublemaker when he was young and being in trouble and now he’s an inspiration with how motivated he is and his goals in life and all the things he’s trying to accomplish.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what he and his boss, Andrew Schultz and you’ll hear him refer to Andrew in the conversation. That’s who he’s talking about, Andrew Schultz, who I hope to have on the podcast in the near future. The organization that they’ve put together called Brothers In Farms, the things that they’re doing are pretty incredible, pretty cutting edge. They’ve done some amazing things in the wine world, growing grapes for wine and the art and science of doing that, so we get into all of it this week with Javier Valencia on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop and this is my continuing journey to get to know the real people behind our food here in Washington State.

[Music]

Dillon Honcoop:
But you grew up around farming?

Javier Valencia:
Yeah, that’s all I grew up around. Like I said, my dad came to America as a farmer from Mexico to California. California is berries, grapes as well. Came to Washington when he was 12 I believe, and farmed since then. Since I was younger, I was able to see him as a farmer, grown into his own business. Seeing that, all that hard work that goes into that. That’s what came into my head like, “There’s no way I’d go into farming.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you didn’t want a farm?

Javier Valencia:
I didn’t want to farm. I was like, there’s no way I would work 12-hour shifts in the heat, in the cold, just seeing that labor. You know sometimes we’d see them two hours a day. The dude would eat and pass out.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of farming does your dad do?

Javier Valencia:
A little bit of everything. I really think he does what he enjoys now. He does mint, asparagus, Concord grapes for juice, corn. One of his favorite things just as asparagus. I don’t know if it’s just something one of his favorites or something that he’s done, but yeah, he does a little bit of everything basically.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you said he farms in Sunnyside?

Javier Valencia:
Farms in Sunnyside and Grandview.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. How many acres does he farm?

Javier Valencia:
In total, I believe he has 62 acres.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so when you were a kid, were you working on the farm? What did you do?

Javier Valencia:
Yeah, I learned how to drive on farm. I learned basics changing water on the farm. A lot of times when I was working was punishment basically, so I think that made it worse.

Dillon Honcoop:
Punishment for like what?

Javier Valencia:
Just stuff at school like me getting in trouble with my sisters. I’m the only boy out of four kids, so three sisters. So I was basically always a troublemaker and because of that it was like, “Okay, you’re going to work with your dad today. After school you’d go do this, you’d go change water, you’d go.” And so I was like, “I’m at school all day, I’m a kid. Why do I have to be changing water after work?” So that just made it like this is just struggle. It’s a struggle, so I don’t want to farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what had you planned to do?

Javier Valencia:
I actually wanted to go on law enforcement. I accomplished Pre-Police Academy when I was 19. That was my set goal. I was set to do it. I’m somebody that doesn’t plan things. I don’t like sitting at a desk. I like the assignment of something changing and that was it for law enforcement. I knew it’d be something exciting and that was my plan and I went to school for that. I wasn’t perfect as a teen, so I kind of backtracked for a while. Enjoyed my 19 through 21.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Javier Valencia:
And I became 21 and ended up having a family. I had a daughter, so that I just started working. I actually went back with my dad, working on the farm, working two jobs because that’s what I was raised as. I had a child, so I had to start working.

Javier Valencia:
Then when I planned to become a cop, I ran into Andrew and he gave me this crazy idea about, “Let’s start farming.” And I jumped in. Like I said, it was just his ideas were what I wanted. Going for the unknown, but knowing that we had a goal for it is like I could do something like that. And I told him the same story, “Man, I’m not a farmer. That’s not my thing.: And he’s like, “Yeah, I get that.” He’s like, “I feel the same way.” But there’s totally different view at farming now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So do you love it?

Javier Valencia:
I do love it. Like I said, “It doesn’t feel like a job.” You know people are telling me you work all the time. My social media people are like, “You’re always working. Why are you always working?” It’s like I don’t even picture it some days. I get up at 3:00 in the morning every day and I go to the gym and I’m in the gym and that’s when I start my day off and then I could work from 6:00 to 6:00, 6:00 to 8:002 and it’s like it’s not a job sometimes. I enjoy it and I never thought I would. I do now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how did that change as you started to do it? When did you realize that you have a passion for this?

Javier Valencia:
I think when I started, I honestly believe I thought about like when he first explained it to me, I was like, “Well, you know there’s money there.” I believe that was my first thought. Hey, that career there’s money there and it’s something I know. Maybe I’ll click onto it faster. So I think that’s what started me out, but I kept going like taking data and knowing I was able to control so much and we were able to control so much, that’s what kept me going, knowing that I control and being able to set goals and accomplishing them and then learning at the same time.

Javier Valencia:
And what’s kept me going now is I see people coming to me asking, “How are you doing this? How are you doing that?” So if I’m able to help out more people now like in a conversation you’re having with Andrew outside, given all these younger kids opportunity that were raised in farming, but, hey, there’s growth now. You don’t have to be like your uncle and your dad that does the same job for 30 years. There’s growth here and being able to give people the opportunity and it keeps them going.

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys are your custom viticulture, right?

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean? What’s the actual job?

Javier Valencia:
Well, our business is growing high quality wine grapes. The difference between quality and quantity basically. We’re able to do work for people at a higher price, but being able to put in little details that people don’t see. Like I mentioned before, we have programs, we have systems that we use pruning weights parameters, shoot length. We have all these small things that keeps us precise on our goals and we were able to use those to set our goals.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, our tonnage were dead on. We were able to set those goals and hit them each and every time just because we’re so precise at those things. And like I said, even those being precise isn’t like, “Okay, we have it figured out.” We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. It’s sunny outside right now. It could rain tomorrow. But having those goals and having all this data and having all this information is what keeps us on top.

Dillon Honcoop:
So custom viticulture is basically like somebody else owns the vineyard, the field.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then you guys come in and farm it for them.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of things do you do to make that happen?

Javier Valencia:
A lot of conversations like myself, the owners are from Napa where we work for. So I’m able to go to Napa and find out information they have there, see the information they want there and bring it here to Washington where people haven’t seen it, so I’m able to do that. I’m able to take information and show them, “Hey this works. This doesn’t work.”

Javier Valencia:
So besides just data collection and stuff, yeah, I’m able to manage 40 people, I’m able to find and that’s been fun, like I said, I’ve never done it. I was able to walk in and speak to, have conversations and speak with managers that have managed 20 people for 20, 30 years and have conversations with them, how they do it. Until this day I’ve learned, and I’m trying to learn, “Hey, how do you manage those people to get that done?” Because yeah and all, even though I have the information, none of it would be possible without those 30, 40 people that we do have and building that team.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, I think we’ve been lucky to try to find people like me and Andrew that are open minded, that want to see an outcome, that want to see change. And that’s something huge that I’ve seen with our workers that they’re able to see, “Hey, these guys have goals. Hey, these guys are pushing for something instead of just give me a job and working me from 6:00 to 5:00 and kicking me out.” These guys get to see, hey, why are doing this differently. They get to see the outcome, hey, their business businesses growing. They got to see us from the bottom. They’ve got to see where we are four years, now. They get to see why we’re so picky. They get to do harvest and see, maybe in them they don’t get to see the product of the wine, but even just money-wise like for them I believe it’s like, hey, we’re getting paid by tonnage when everybody else getting paid by an hour.

Javier Valencia:
It’s like everybody sees our goals and the achievements we are getting in different ways. Everybody’s able to see it. It’s not just a huge company like, “Hey, we don’t know who we work for.” And I think that just puts us out. That puts us out and shows how different we are from everybody else, just how our company is. How would you put that? That’s how our company is different from everybody, but makes us stronger and shows us why we stand out. Even though we’re younger, like it’s a family that we have here.

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys are kind of the new kids on the block, so to speak with doing this here in Washington. What have the reactions been to you guys doing things differently?

Javier Valencia:
I think that’s the fun part. First couple of years, I was intimidated. I’d see people like a young tattooed Hispanic? You know what are you doing? You know you don’t know what you’re doing. And I believe that’s pushed me more. People saying, “Hey, you don’t have experience. Hey, you don’t have a reputation for yourself,” but us with our results and everything, all the hard work that we put in, our Brothers In Farms has been. I guess we made a name for ourselves, just with the hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about the cultural element? You come from a Hispanic family.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your dad’s from Mexico. He’s been through this world of farm work.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re bilingual as well.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that affect how you manage your crew?

Javier Valencia:
I think that does help me out. Like I said, I believe everybody in any heritage, they’re going to push you. Like you said, you’re the new kid on the block. We’re going to test you to see if you really know what you’re doing, but them testing me in that culture has made me the manager that I am now, stronger.

Javier Valencia:
And I’ve always done that. I don’t go out there and it’s like, “Hey, you’re doing something wrong.” It’s like, “Hey, I see this as this. Would you explain to me why you’re doing it this way?” And before it’s like I would go out there and do that and some guys would turn their back and probably laugh. Like, “This kid does not know what he’s talking about.” Like I said, now I’m able to have a conversation with them because I am bilingual. Like, “Hey, this is why I’ve done this and this is why I do this.”

Javier Valencia:
And sometimes it makes sense or I could take their experience and then my information that I have that I’ve learned now and put them together and it’s like, “Okay, we could balance somewhere here.” And I really believe that’s what stands out. I don’t know how you’d put it. We have the connection with our employees to do that and help us learn. And then, we’re teaching them, but they’re teaching us at the same time, which makes us stronger. Like how you said, being Hispanic, I’ve seen, okay, a guy who wants to do his job and get out and it’s like, “Okay, do that, but I want to explain to you why you’re doing it.” Because I don’t think they’ve ever had the opportunity.

Javier Valencia:
I don’t believe anybody’s ever been told, “Hey, this is your job and this is why you’re doing it.” It’s like, “Hey, do your job and there’s your paycheck.” And I honestly believe that’s what makes them, having that Spanish culture is like, “Okay, now I see that. Now I see why I’m working. Now I see, hey, I could have…” Most of the people that work here are husband and wife. “Hey, I’m able to work here with my wife,” and it’s like, “We know what we’re doing.” Nobody’s working, hey, we’re working 6:00 and 8:00 and they can’t go to their family. We’re all working together as a team and they still have their lives. Nobody’s working 20 hours a day, seven days a week and them seeing that, like I said, I think they appreciate it as much as we do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think that cultural heritage is often misunderstood like when people are talking about labor issues and work and stuff?

Javier Valencia:
I believe so. I honestly believe there’s people still that don’t understand, those guys are just working. They just want a job. But like I said, I don’t think they were ever fed the information that we’re able to feed them now. So yeah, I still believe there still might be confusion. Why do you guys have your employees uninvolved? Why are you taking your time with them? Why don’t you just have it your way and that’s it. That makes the difference between our quality, quantity, you know?

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the key, what’s the secret to managing people?

Javier Valencia:
I don’t know. I believe communication. I was lucky to get new Hepe is what we call the manager this year. I connected with him easily and he’s become a really good friend to me, but that communication is same thing. I’ve had a conversation with him that he’s worked with employees for 10 years that he’d see once a month. He’d get a list and he’d see them once a month and I’m out there involved, asking them questions.

Javier Valencia:
And actually, I had to tell him, “Hey, I need this done.” Most of the time he knows what he’s doing. He’s done this for 10, 12 years, but just because I’m not here all the time, I want to know how this is happening and managing is, I don’t know. It’s something that I’m still learning until this day. I try to read and I try to see how people do that, but I honestly believe it’s takes that experience and that time to get those communications with people.

Javier Valencia:
And I honestly believe I’ve gotten really good at it, but like said, I still want the experience. And I don’t know if it’s just a friendship that’s made it easier, but I just believe it’s like communication to people. Like I said, I see how going back to my family seeing. Maybe they didn’t know anything. Maybe he was working 24/7, he didn’t even know who was working for.

Javier Valencia:
And now I see these guys and it’s like Hispanic culture, they want to work anyways, so he’s going to work, he’s going to work, he’s going to work, but if he knows he’s working for somebody that appreciates that and he knows what he’s working for, I believe just makes it easier for everybody. So being in that man-driven position, being able to do that, honestly, I think that what makes my job even easier. I come to work and I’m managing, but I’m having a conversation about life and work at the same time and we’re both getting things done. We’re all getting things done.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like to know that you’re out there growing food for people to eat or drink, I guess?

Javier Valencia:
I’ve gotten lucky trying wine. I’ve tried really good wines that came from these vineyards that we grow for, but it’s just amazing how you see all this labor, all this time, these harvest hours, it’s amazing what you could do with the grape. It’s amazing how in my eyes is now comparing the grapes that I grow to another wine. I don’t know how wines are made exactly. That’s something I’m still wanting to learn, but trying wines side by side now, “Hey, you grew this and someone grew this,” or trying wines that are from right next door to my stuff and it’s like, what’s the difference, you’re 20 feet away from me.

Javier Valencia:
Even seeing those goals, I honestly wish I could show all the guys that work for us, “Hey, try this wine that your guys labor went into this,” because I don’t think you can write all that in a wine bottle and a lot of people don’t see that. I’ve actually seen, there is some wineries now that take photos of our workers, take the pictures and they have that in their winery as you’re trying wine. And I’m not sure people notice that, but I’m sure, one out of those 10 people see it and it has to get noticed. That one person goes and tell somebody else, “Hey, you see those photos or did you see, you know that wine we had it came from this vineyard?”

Javier Valencia:
It’s amazing to know I grew that and it was made into that like honestly is and that’s why I said, now like last year was one of the biggest accomplishments, having winemakers come and say, “This is some of the best fruit I’ve had in 10 years.” You know I have to pat myself on the back for those things. There’s no way you’ve been buying grapes for 10 years and you’re going to tell me this the best you’ve had two years in a row. That’s accomplishment for me.

Javier Valencia:
But like I said, it’s accomplishment for all of us and if I could write that on a board and put it out there for those guys, I’m sure they love it. Hey, you guys, just appreciate everything you’re doing. And like I said, I’m sure that just has to make somebody happy. If it made me feel that way, I’m sure the guys would love it.

Javier Valencia:
You have a daughter, you said. Do you have any more kids in that?

Javier Valencia:
I have two daughters, seven and eight. Still, I don’t know where they’re going to go. They’re too young for me to decide yet.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Javier Valencia:
But they’re both crazy open-minded like I am, so I can’t complain. I’m a single dad right now, so that’s fun. Like I said, I have a full time managing job and I can still be a full-time dad, so that keeps me on my toes. I’m assuming that it’s really and I’m always pushing myself for more. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m at the gym at 3:00 in the morning. People say, “You’re crazy.” Some people say, “You don’t sleep,” because I just made it a routine and I love to compare things at the gym. That’s the reason why I go to the gym so much. Lifting weights, pushing myself, two different things that I haven’t done. Lifting heavy weight that I haven’t before.

Javier Valencia:
Same with work. I see it most of the time. I compare that to work. It’s like I would go try something that I haven’t tried. Nine-hour days, not really indifferent than a six-hour day. Computer work isn’t really different than standing out in the field. It’s just that mind thing. And I don’t know if it’s maturity. I don’t think I’ve used that word before, but maybe it is. I became more matured to see like, okay, I have goals. I have a future here, so why not use it? I became really big on like I said, just time-wise and me using my time for something that’s worth it.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, my daughter is the same way. Like they’re really young, so I don’t know where they’re going yet, but they have opportunities for everything. They want to try something, they try it. So that’s going to be the fun part, raising them, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you manage being a single dad and doing all the work that you do here and just life?

Javier Valencia:
Honestly, I have no idea, so I’ve gotten that question a lot, but I honestly feel like I’m killing it. Like I said this year or is it like February 3rd, I actually made it a year everyday going to gym, 3:00 in the morning and Andrew was like, “Wow, you did it.” It’s like during harvest, working to our days, I was up at 3:00 in the morning at the gym and I said, I’d just like to push myself. I’m still young, so I could be wasting money, but if I could push myself and set these goals for myself, why not?

Javier Valencia:
Even now, like how you said, I feel like I’m busy. I’m managing a business. I’m still learning, so I can’t say I have it. I’m stress-free. I have two little girls. There’s no way that’s not stressful, but even now, I’m pushing myself to partner up to open up a gym. People are like, “There’s too much on your plate.” But it’s like, “Who else is going to do it?” Nobody. And that’s what I’ve put into my head. There’s opportunities out there for everybody.

Javier Valencia:
So if I’m able to help somebody with that, if it’s my workers, a friend, myself to learn, even if I would fail, I think what’s motivated me the most is that as a younger age through 18, I was overweight, quiet kid and that’s what I was. I was just overweight quiet kid. So when I see I had opportunities and now jumping here, I made a huge step from working a 40-hour week job for two or three years to where I’ve jumped into position now is a huge step and I think that’s what I had taken advantage of, I’m not going to waste time anymore with any of this stuff. I have two little girls that I can’t say I’m bored with. There’s no way I could say I’m bored at a seven- and eight-year-old.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Javier Valencia:
A management position. I can’t say on bored. Like I said, weather-wise, water-wise, harvest wise, I can’t say I’m bored. I can’t say I know it’s going to happen tomorrow. Same with the gym. It’s like, I’m nowhere to perfect, so why not push myself? So that’s what’s kept me. I don’t know. It’s the first time. like I said, I’ve ever used the maturity like I don’t know if that’s changed or not, but I know I’m doing something good. I know I’m doing something that’s keeping me motivated.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, I have people now telling me, “Hey, how are you doing it? How are you doing?” I’m like, “I just get my ass up. I have to. I just get my ass up.” And you have to give people a chance because, “Hey, I want to do that.” Okay and they’ll show up at 3:00 in the morning. Actually, charge me nothing. Show up. It’s sad, but it’s like you give those people opportunities and if you get one out of 10 to do it, that makes you feel better than charging somebody, “Hey, I’m charging you 200 bucks for this.”

Javier Valencia:
So that’s where I’m at now. I feel like I have had a huge opportunity, so I’m trying to give that back to everybody else. Everybody’s around me, Andrew is 38, 37, so about 10 years older than me and he says. “You’re in a position that I was never at that age.” As I said, that’s why I put it in my hand. It’s like I have no time to waste no more. Like why not just put my head down and keep running.

Javier Valencia:
And even me losing the weight, that was a huge thing. I believe I doubted myself a lot before, but it’s like now I put my head down and I just run forward and it’s like nobody’s stopping me. If anybody stops me, it’s going to be myself.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the key to losing weight? Was it the working out or changing your diet or?

Javier Valencia:
I think I just want to change, like I said, I was honestly just tired of it. I used to run and run and run. I used to run sometimes where I’d have to call my mom, “Hey, I’m not going to make it back.” And now I’ve gotten smarter, like I said, working out wise. A year of working out, doing programs, helping the body build programs, having him ask him now, “Hey, let’s partner up and open another gym.” I know I’m doing something right.

Javier Valencia:
And I believe that’s what puts me out from everybody else. And I know Andrew had seen that. I’m willing to go for it and I’m willing to try it and I’ll do it over and over and over. And some people will be like, Oh, I didn’t see. This didn’t happen as soon. It’s like, it’s going to happen. If you don’t try it and you waste time and it’s not going to happen. So like I said, I can’t tell myself right now, hey, I’m going to mess up or I’m going to fail. I’m sitting here, I’ve never done this before. That makes me nervous, but I said, hey, I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do the whole podcast thing?

Javier Valencia:
Yeah, I’ve never done it. I’ve never spoken on a microphone. I’ve never, so I’m doing it once. Hopefully, it’s easier the next time and hopefully, there’s a next time and I don’t see why there isn’t. There’s the opportunity.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your tattoos, you got a lot of them.

Javier Valencia:
I got too many of them. Same thing. I’m not sure why I got tattoos. I have on my arm this family, daughters, nephews, sisters. I don’t why I got tattoos. I believe when I lost my way was something that meant to me. I’ve always liked them, but then I was like, okay, it means something to me. So I started doing it. I like them.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much weight did you lose?

Javier Valencia:
I lost 40 pounds. I believe I was 216 at my biggest, and even now, like I said, I do these goals and stuff. Right now I’m doing this thing at the gym that’s like, hey, who could lose the most fat and gain the most muscle. Like I said, I’m just doing it just so I could do it. My buddy said, “It’s a three-month program.” He’s like, “I lose 50% first month, 50% second month.” And he’s like, I’d like a third. At the last one, it was just like wow.

Javier Valencia:
You put that out there and people are like, “Oh, I want to do it.” And it’s like it just happens. Everybody falls like flies and I believe that’s the fun part, too. It’d be like, I did that now. I’ll just do it to be like I did it.

Dillon Honcoop:
The sense of accomplishment

Javier Valencia:
Right, and people noticing it. Like I said, I don’t think it’s an ego thing, but being able to see those things like, hey, people notice who you are. People notice who Bros and Farms are now. It’s like, hey, that hard work paid off. Everybody’s hard work paid off. And like I said, I don’t believe we’re stopping anytime soon.

Javier Valencia:
And me health-wise, me, I don’t know it’s like trying to keep yourself not satisfied but knowing, “Hey, I like this. I enjoy this, so why not?” You’re satisfied now, but the long run isn’t just going to be worth it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What should people know about how their food is grown?

Javier Valencia:
Health wise and gym wise, I’d say that having locally grown food and stuff like that is worth it because the labor that goes into it, it’s just different than something coming out from a machine. It is better for you. That’s a whole another topic how that food is better for you, but just knowing, hey, somebody grew that or somebody even now like, how would I put that? Just like the grapes I grow.

Javier Valencia:
I’m able to go tell somebody, hey, that wine’s good because I knew I grew it and if somebody had questions, “Hey, what about sprays?” And some people don’t know that information, but some people hide that and I wouldn’t. Hey, I know what I sprayed here. I know what I put there. There’s nothing really to it and some people won’t say anything. It’s just, hey, it’s a bottle of wine.

Javier Valencia:
So I think having information and having a background to it, that will put more people like, “Hey, I want to try that,” because that information is open to everybody when like I said, some people might listen and go one ear and out the other.

Dillon Honcoop:
You mean like people who are worried about what’s being sprayed on food or something?

Javier Valencia:
Right. And they might be worried about it, but they’re not sure what’s in it, so just giving them that information because you do have it, it’s not going to hurt anything. That could have somebody jump into something like, “Hey, that’s interesting.” It just opens conversations that people don’t have. So you know just asking me that like, how do you explain that to somebody.

Dillon Honcoop:
But what would you tell somebody who is worried that their food isn’t safe?

Javier Valencia:
Investigate, ask questions. That’s what I would do. If I don’t know something, like I said, I can’t sit here and say exactly what’s sprayed on everything and how everything’s grown, but just asking those questions because half the time it isn’t. There is nothing huge. There’s nothing. You don’t have to be worried about this, but I guess that’s something like I said, just that fear of asking, “Hey, what’s in my food?”

Dillon Honcoop:
What about how workers are treated and what would you tell somebody who hasn’t been around farming if they’re concerned about that?

Javier Valencia:
Ask questions and actually see it. Like I said, I wouldn’t be scared to show anybody, “Hey, this is what my workers go through every day. This is what my workers do weekly.” Informing them, “Hey, we have information. There’s nothing crazy going on here. These guys have a job just like you do. These guys are putting everything they got.”

Javier Valencia:
For an example, we have workers here that I see are motivated to have a leadership thing, but they really are. They have a background. They’re Hispanic, they came from Mexico. They’re just saying, “Hey, I need my job. I’ll work. I’ll do what you need to get done.” But because they were never fed, “Hey, what about if he’d grown here? What about if he did this? What if?” So having people like that working for us here, like I said, you couldn’t ask for something more.

Javier Valencia:
And people don’t know that. Like I said, people don’t know, “Hey, who are your workers?” Like I said, I don’t think I’ve ever been somebody to do that. Like, this is my fruit or hey, this is my wine that we made. It’s like, no, it’s Brothers In Farms for a reason. We have to all come together to do, to have our results that we have. It’s a really a team.

Javier Valencia:
And like I said I’ve gotten lucky the last couple of years knowing how to build that team and I’m trying to learn more now, to build that team and make that team stronger. Have a buddy jumping on the first, he’s jumping on for the same reason I see he’s open minded. He’s older than I am. That’s actually kept me more motivated this year. A buddy that’s older than I am, that seriously had no goals, driving a tractor in wheat fields. I’m giving him an opportunity, “Hey, jump on with me. Jump on Brothers In Farms and there’s somewhere to go, man. I got a future for you.” And me saying that to him, he calls me like, “Hey, I’m ready to start now or hey, I’ll prove it to you in 30 days instead of 90 days.” This dude is jacked and motivated.

Javier Valencia:
And it’s like I was able to do that for somebody and it’s like people don’t see those. Like I said, people don’t see, oh, how the company was made. And it’s like, we really started from an office, officers sitting in two offices that a desk right next to each other, but to building a shop, to building our label has just become huge.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think there’s controversy about workers and how they’re being treated and immigration and all that stuff? Do you follow that much?

Javier Valencia:
Honestly, I don’t. I’m not a TV person. I’m not involved. I don’t know. I just don’t like something that I can’t. I don’t know if I can’t control it, but it’s like, I honestly feel like it doesn’t affect me. My workers do, so I’m doing my part here. So yeah, if I’m able to say, “Hey, we need our workers here.” I guess my point of view on all that stuff is just like it’s not necessary. We need workers. Get rid of everybody else and then see how many people are in a struggle when they don’t get wine. I mean these guys are going to struggle when they don’t have fruit.

Javier Valencia:
But like I said, people aren’t informed on that. Like I said, I keep myself out of the media and news and stuff just for that reason. I feel like that’s something that somebody has way too much time on their hand to like, “Oh, I want to know. I want to pick at this and I want to know what this is.” I’ve always stayed away from my TV. Not always, but it’s just became a habit again as well, not listening to many media, not listening to the news.

Javier Valencia:
Just controlling, I don’t think it’s control, but just knowing like the known, instead of me questioning, “Oh, I don’t know that or what if that doesn’t affect me.” If I know I’m doing well here and we’re doing good at well here it’s like, it doesn’t affect me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Within the Hispanic community here in Eastern Washington and I know it’s a fairly well connected community. Do people talk about that issue and like labor issues and problems?

Javier Valencia:
I honestly haven’t heard a lot about that. Like I said, I’m younger to this business wise into what I have seen. That’s something I’ve seen recently. Hey, we’re getting paid minimum wage, but like I said, me knowing management wise now, like I said, people get raises every time, but they never know, “Okay, what’s that getting out of the business?” Like I said, we’re a young business. It’s like, hey. You know that adds up and that’s a big chunk out of a business that just started.

Javier Valencia:
And that’s where I think where we stay motivated trying to push them, “Hey, we have a future.” Nobody’s struggling. I don’t believe anybody is struggling and I don’t believe I’m struggling. Maybe at my position I could be making more money I could, but I’m not struggling at all. And like I said, I’m not complaining about where I’m at, but because like I said, I see that future. I don’t believe I’m going to stop anytime soon.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, I’m only 28. I see me at Andrew’s age, it’s like I’ll be set and that’s not going to stop me then and I don’t believe I will ever stop and that’s just my heritage and like how I was raised. You know my dad now still working. The man shouldn’t be working, I don’t think, but he’s still out there working. So like I said, even if I’m fat and happy, honestly, I hope I never get there, but me staying motivated, it will keep me from that spot. I’ll be happy, but I’m going to be motivated.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your dad think was he like not wanting to be farming and then ending up in farming, what did he say?

Javier Valencia:
When I first told him I was going into farming, I think he kind of like laughed about it, like, “Really?” Like he didn’t think it’d happen. And I think in his head he’s like I gave up on the thing like, “Hey, I’m not going to be a farmer.” So in his head it’s like, “Oh, you really don’t want to work.” And like I said, I don’t see it as a bad thing. Somebody would be like, “Oh, he didn’t believe in you,” but he’s worked his whole life, so I’m pretty sure the first thing he went to his head is like, “Damn kid doesn’t want to work.” And I’m sure that’s exactly how he said it. It’s exactly how he’s seen it.

Javier Valencia:
And now that he sees what I’m doing and that I enjoy it, like I kind of see why he works. I’m pretty sure he enjoyed it. For doing it for 40 years, you know he has to enjoy what he’s doing and if he’s still doing it now and he doesn’t have to, the dude has to enjoy it. And like I said, me learning technology and the new stuff’s that’s upcoming. I mean, being able to share that with him. It’s just like I said, that just raises my standards as well. I’m able to help these guys and it’s not easy to help him and I think that’s the challenging part.

Javier Valencia:
I love challenges. Like I said, just me staying motivated gym wise with my daughter’s work. Everything’s challenging for me. I’m never comfortable. And you know, I read a lot now. I listen to a lot of motivational people, Jocko and all those dudes, any of those guys are just about, just do it and people talking about reasoning in this. And I’m like, I have an excuse for everything if I wanted to. I don’t have to be at gym at three in the morning. There’s no reason I have to be there. My ass could be asleep. My girls don’t go to school until 6:00. I don’t have to be at work at a certain time, but like I said, it’s just keeping that momentum and challenging myself is like what’s keeping us going.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like all this is back to your dad and this has changed your understanding of your dad.

Javier Valencia:
Right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like you get him now?

Javier Valencia:
Yeah, I get it. Like I get why he worked. I get why he was looking. He had a goal somewhat. You know that would be a good question for me to ask him one day, “Hey, what was your goal?” And I wondered if he had one or he just worked his ass off and now he’s like, he’s content, but he’s like, he’s never going to stop and maybe that’s a difference between somebody. Maybe he doesn’t have a high goal yet, or maybe he does, but it’s just, he’s going to keep going until he falls down.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What about you said he was skeptical of you going into farming at first.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does he say now?

Javier Valencia:
Now, he congratulates me. You’re doing well. You’re doing really good. When he was first able to ask me for my opinion, like I said, that just jumped me up. Like, hey, I know what I’m doing. The guy has worked to the ass off, asks me for my opinion. It’s like, I mean I’m doing something right, so that just keeps me going, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Would that have been hard for him?

Javier Valencia:
I believe it took everything he had, you know? Everything he had to ask me, “Hey, what’s your opinion on this?” And I’m damn sure he’d probably kill me if he’s like, “Oh, you’re going to tell people I asked you for help or asked you for your opinion.” But like said, it just shows, I had to show him in some way or another, he’s learning, he knows what he’s talking about. So like I said, if I’m able to get into somebody’s head like that, my workers, the employees we have, that’s what keeps me motivated. Like I said, these guys see it and I know they see it now.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your future with farming?

Javier Valencia:
I want to keep going. Maybe one day, our goals are now, we’re growing so fast to have Brothers In Farms 2. Maybe one day that will be me or maybe I’ll take over Brothers In Farms and then Andrew’s Brother In Farms 3 and then we have, you know, that just keeps growing. I love the business part. I love being outside. I don’t like sitting on desks, but I love this business part. But at the same thing, it’s just challenging. It’s challenging and I said, why not do it?

Javier Valencia:
I failed, but every time I failed now, I’ve learned from it. And I said, that’s the difference for me as well, all these failures I’m taking them and I’m learning from it, so it’s like, “Why not do it now?” If I was able to jump from no experience to a management position, why can I not be in a CEO position and it’s like, why not. The opportunity is there and I believe that was something I was scared of before. Asking for the opportunity or saying I couldn’t move on from this and it’s just all there.

Dillon Honcoop:
What should somebody in Seattle know about the people that are growing their food?

Javier Valencia:
What should they know? There’s hard work into it. It’s not just a piece of fruit that is put into a box. It took a lot to get into that box. It probably took a lot to get to Seattle. I’ve worked in warehouses before. It’s no fun. You know putting apple by apple in a box or into a bag. It’s not that easy. People should really, I don’t know how I’d put it, I don’t think I’ve ever gone to that far of like I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that.

Javier Valencia:
But if somebody has questions about it, not to be afraid to ask and I think that’s something we’re trying to do, building the website and stuff like, hey, this is where this wine is coming from or hey, this is where this field came from. Like I said, I love now just hearing clips and I was down in Benton City, that’s the view from here. I was down in Benton City and I got to see the 60 acres we put in and like I said, I get to say we did that and some people that don’t get to see that.

Javier Valencia:
I’m sure this $200 bottle of wine is coming out of here. Those people open it, but if they got to open it and see the view from where I get to see it, I bet it’d be even better. Like I said, I’ve been lucky to do it all. I was able to grow it, plant it, and try it at the same time. People had seen that story is what makes it even better.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome. Thank you for opening up and sharing your personal story. Yeah, I think what you guys have going here is really, really cool stuff.

Javier Valencia:
I appreciate it and like I said, I really hope we keep growing and like I said, it’s my first podcast, but I really hope from this just people really saying that like, “Hey, we want to know what Brothers In Farms is,” or “Hey, we want to know what grape growing is.” Like I said, it’s just asking those questions and having people like you to get us out there, you’re doing your part, we’re doing our part and it’s like, people staying open-minded, we’re all going to grow like that.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real people podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Honestly, I couldn’t believe it when he said he’s working on opening a gym. I didn’t know before this conversation that he was a single dad and doing that while he’s putting in so many hours on the farm and he’s so passionate about growing incredible wine grapes and kind of changing that world. Yet his story of discipline and motivation on top of all that and all the other things he’s trying to do, pretty incredible stuff, so it was really cool and actually kind of inspiring to get to know Javier Valencia there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for joining us for this conversation and we appreciate you subscribing to Real Food, Real People on whatever your favorite podcast platform is, whether it’s Apple podcasts or Spotify, and there’s some others out there Deezer or Spreaker or I can’t even list all of the ones that we’re on. You can find us there. Also at realfoodrealpeople.org. Our website just got a face lift, so go check it out. There’s additional content there plus I got to get to work on adding even more, so expect that in the near future. Again, at realfoodrealpeople.org.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast, documenting my personal journey going around Washington State, getting to know the real people behind the food that we have here. Thank you for being a part of this with us.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family I Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org.y

Devin Day | #010 02/17/2020

A tech guru becomes a farmer, producing some of the most unique food products in Washington. Meet Devin Day of Valley Farmstead Rabbits and Neil's Big Leaf Maple Syrup, and hear him share how he's found his niche.

Transcript

Devin Day:
I actually gave a baby rabbit, just born, mouth-to-mouth. I just, little, little puff puff, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Devin Day:
Little chest compressions, and it took this huge gasp of air. And within like two minutes was just as healthy as the other ones. Blew my mind.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week on the podcast, we spoke with a guy who’s rethinking a lot of stuff about farming and where we get food from, and doing some unique stuff. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. Thanks for being here and joining us. On my continuing journey to get to know the real farmers in Washington State, and share their stories with you here. Devin Day of Valley Farmstead Rabbits and Neil’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup, both in Acme, Washington, has an incredible story to share of growing up in town and only becoming a farmer later in life. So, join us as we get to know Devin Day and the fascinating stuff he’s doing out in Acme.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, when did you actually become a farmer? What’s your story to the farming world?

Devin Day:
Well, I’m actually fairly new to farming. Most of my background is in technology, computers, software. That sort of thing. My stepdad, who’s Neil, was working out here in Acme and I was working, again, still in tech stuff. He just called and said, “Hey, you want to come work out on the farm?” And I said, “Not really.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the farm at that time? What was he doing? Beef?

Devin Day:
There was a lot of beef there. We have a couple bison herds and growing a lot of grass to feed different animals. It was kind of a program that was building as it went, so to speak. We did that for a couple years and this whole time, he was still playing with the maple trees and cooking out in the woods and doing that sort of thing-

Dillon Honcoop:
Cooking out in the woods. That just sounds like it’s going to be sketchy. Like, what kind of cooking out in the woods do they do in Acme?

Devin Day:
Yeah, maybe I should clarify that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Exactly, yeah, let’s clarify that.

Devin Day:
Well, he was collecting sap from maple trees and he had this big stainless steel tub that he made. He built a big fire pit and he would, down by his shop, and he would cook the maple sap down to the point where it was maple syrup. Then that kind of became the very first, I mean, there’s a few hobbyists out there. There’s some eclectic forums you can find other people that are tapping some of their trees in their backyard. He was doing that, so he would give away sap, or not sap but maple syrup for gifts and it just got more and more popular. That’s where it all started. Just a guy out in the woods cooking.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, he had asked you to come work on the farm or see if you were interested, and you weren’t?

Devin Day:
At first, no. But the more I talked to my wife and we’d … I grew up in the city, then moved out to the county during my high school years and I liked-

Dillon Honcoop:
City being Bellingham?

Devin Day:
City being Bellingham, yeah, not like the-

Dillon Honcoop:
Big city-

Devin Day:
No. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m from Whatcom County, too, so I mean the big city is Bellingham to me.

Devin Day:
Yep. So, just the more we talked about it, it sounded cool. We really wanted to raise our kids out in the county, being able to run around with their shoes off and doing that sort of thing. We already homeschooled our kids and so, it made a lot of sense. We didn’t have a lot tying us down so we just went for it. That was about six years ago, and yeah, now-

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like taking that step? That’s a scary step to make-

Devin Day:
Yeah, it is-

Dillon Honcoop:
To do that.

Devin Day:
I did college. I did, I went on a baseball scholarship and then I hurt my knee and got bitter and left and that whole bit. So, I definitely love doing the tech side of things. It wasn’t necessarily a scary step, it’s just I didn’t know how much I was going to like being on a farm. I wasn’t a farm kid. Didn’t grow up as a farm kid. I think that was my biggest hesitation. But, talked about it and one of the things, too, is I did get to … This whole farm is owned by a larger group, even though we’re doing kind of our own things on the farm, I do work for a larger group and I work for my stepdad. He’s the manager of a lot of different farms out here in Acme.

Devin Day:
So, I did get to do a lot of IT and stuff still for the group itself. So, I still got to have my hands in there. So, it wasn’t … I got to go into town, into the offices and fix everybody’s computers and-

Dillon Honcoop:
What? Farming involves IT now?

Devin Day:
Yeah. But I got a lot of free rein and I got to come up with a lot of ideas for putting efficiency sensors on this, and temperature sensors on that. You get to come up with a lot of different ideas, so it was fun. And then, I got introduced, I’m kind of veering here so if you want to-

Dillon Honcoop:
No, go for it.

Devin Day:
I got introduced because it was all food-oriented. So, the group itself owns some restaurants and things like that, so I was exposed to a lot of chefs and things like that early on. With my marketing and IT and technology background, I’d been exposed working in that agency side of things, so I wasn’t afraid to go and introduce myself to other chefs and things like that. So, it kind of snowballed. You had asked me earlier, “How did you get going with this?” And it really just ended up with being exposed to a lot of those people, hearing that feedback of what they were interested in. I had already been working with some chefs on some rabbits and that’s, we do a lot of rabbit protein to chefs down in Seattle and it’s expanded from there. I brought them one of the little bottles of syrup that my stepdad was cooking out in the woods, and they just freaked out. They were like, and this was a very high-end restaurant that was buying rabbits for all the fancy customers, et cetera. Once they found out, “Wait a minute …” They already used maple syrup, that was the interesting side. When they heard that this was made in Washington with maple trees up here, and that’s never been done, and the flavor profiles are very, very unique. Great for cooking applications and, like I said, they just, they had to have it.

Devin Day:
It slowly snowballed into, “You guys got to set this up so you can start selling this to us.” And that’s what we did.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, back up a little bit. You came out to work on the farm. They were doing beef and bison and other stuff, and you mention this rabbit stuff. How did that get started? I want to hear the rabbit story.

Devin Day:
Yeah, who, rabbit, right? Well, and that’s always the funny thing. It’s like, “So, you’re a rabbit farmer.” “Yeah, I raise rabbits.” So, it’s one of those things. I started to study rabbits and I started to understand how efficient rabbits were. Their manure is higher in nutrients than beef, pork, chicken. You can put it cold on, too. So, we started raising a few for ourselves just for the homesteading side of it and having some really high quality protein. Then because we were exposed to so many different restaurants and chefs already with all the other aspects of the business, it was like, “Oh, you guys have rabbits?” And it was like, “Yeah, I could expand a little bit, grow some for you.” Started with one restaurant and then another restaurant, and then now we do about 20,000 pounds of rabbit annually with probably 50,000 plus pounds of demand that we can’t currently supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. I go to the store. I don’t see rabbit.

Devin Day:
You don’t find it in the store. It’s funny. I talk to a lot of older people and they would say, “Oh, it used to always be in the grocery store.” I don’t know exactly why it disappeared. I would imagine because of the success of the marketing poultry. Maybe, maybe the whole kind of pet side of things. I don’t know. But, it is a very high quality meat. So, to give you a perspective of usage of land inputs, that sort of thing, we did probably 50 plus head of cattle. We have 200 acres to deal with those cattle. Fences, staff, labor, all over the place. And we are in one-third of an acre. I have this little field that used to be for beef and I put up my hoop houses. In probably about a third an acre, I’m putting out the same amount of protein grown per year as the 50 head of cattle. That, to me, just blows my mind. My inputs are smaller, my outputs are the same, if not more, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, are rabbits just more efficient eaters or something then? What’s the key to that? How’s that even possible?

Devin Day:
Yeah, so I think one of the key things is I have a market ready, what they call a fryer, just like a chicken, a market ready fryer in eight weeks, 60 days. No hormones, no antibiotics. It used to, when I first got started, it took me 12 weeks to get to there, to get to market ready. Once I started to research and really understand diet, animal health, when I first started, I just bought commercial rabbit feed, not knowing that there’s better food out there for animals. So, there was that. There was just overall health of the animals. There was animals per unit that you’re raising them in. All of these factors played in a big role. There’s also nutrition. So, this might sound nerdy but I learned huge, huge, huge benefits of vitamin C and huge benefits of a product called yucca, which has a very high steroidal saponin content in it. It is absolutely destroys pathogens. It destroys any sort of coccidiosis and things that you just deal with on a farm.

Devin Day:
There’s a chicken slaughter plant on here, on the property, and chickens from all sorts of farmers come in. See coccidiosis all the time and we don’t deal with that because of steroidal saponins in this yucca product, which is all natural-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s part of the feed?

Devin Day:
We put it into the feed. We get a spray dried version you can put in the water if you want to. It’s a 100% natural product that’s in all kinds of other animal feeds out there. It’s nothing that’s totally new. It’s just something that we’re … It’s very high in vitamin C, fiber, you name it. And they just, once I figured out the right recipe, so to speak, they just, their growth rates, and their genetics, I spent a lot of time finding the right genetics for the herd. It wasn’t me just jumping on Craigslist and finding a few rabbits and growing to a few thousand rabbits, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How many rabbits do you have right now?

Devin Day:
It’ll vary depending on time of year and our slaughter rate at the time, but probably anywhere from 1500 to 3000.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Devin Day:
And we’re expanding. The demand is high. We get a lot of people who have really bad autoimmune problems, and they’re a naturopath and the people that their doctors, they’re not supposed to eat meats. Rabbit’s the only one that they’re supposed to be eating according to their doctor. I get those calls all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that? Why is it different?

Devin Day:
I don’t know. For some reason, it’s just a very clean protein. Either that, or maybe their body hasn’t adjusted to that protein itself, so they’re not showing any autoimmune issue. I don’t quite know exactly but I serve probably 15 or more people that have reached out. The funny thing is is they reach out because they know the way that we raise, our lack of antibiotics, our lack of any sort of inputs to manipulate disease or growth. It’s all natural. And they do really well on it. Do really well on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Devin Day:
Have one lady that drives out from Blaine weekly and buys like five rabbit and off she goes. So, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you talk about, you have a third of an acre and you can raise this much protein. Part of that is because of the amount of protein per pound of meat is a lot higher than beef, right?

Devin Day:
Well, when I say protein, I mean like poundage of meat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Devin Day:
Yep, yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because even per pound, there’s more protein in rabbit mean, right?

Devin Day:
So, I can take … Yes. I can take three does, three female rabbits and one buck, which is the male sire, and I can grow up to 600 pounds annually with those three. So, the amount of … So, they’ll do roughly about nine litters a year and the average cycle of litters annually will give you about 600 pounds of meat. So if you’re, and that’s the thing too, let’s say if you’re, you don’t have a lot of property but you want to be able to raise your own meat as well but you don’t have … you don’t have the property for a cow or you don’t have the energy or time for a cow, you can have three does, which is, you can, the housing you have to have for them is very minimal, and one buck and raise 600 pounds of meat per year for yourself. They’re very easy to home slaughter and they’re extremely healthy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the amount of space, if you’re talking about a couple hundred acres of beef, of ground to have 50 head of beef on, they’re eating all that grass and stuff though. These rabbits, they aren’t just fed by the grass that grows on the third of an acre, are they? Because you’re bringing in feed as well.

Devin Day:
Yeah. So, we have a garage that we converted into a fodder house, fodder beans, sprouted barley, so we do a lot of natural inputs into those. So, we do bring in a commercial feed that’s a custom blend from a local mill. We do have a mill on site that is almost ready, so by spring we should be 100% all inputs from the farm so fresh sprouted barley, which is very high protein and they just love that-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re growing the barley or you bring it in?

Devin Day:
So, we can do 1000 pounds a day in the facility that we converted. So, we do that. We also do a lot of … we have about a third of an acre of comfrey that we do, which is high protein. And we also grow all our own hay as well, so we have a lot of inputs to be … and there’s also, there’s a local, the place where we get our barley, they do malted barley. So they have a process where they actually sprout their barley and then they dry it all in the same machine, and then those sprouted that they dry, the grass that comes off and gets dried out, is an extremely high protein. We can actually take what is a waste product for them-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it Skagit Malting?

Devin Day:
It is, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
On there, they’re like the biggest and one of the only in the region.

Devin Day:
It’s a local … Yeah, so that’s been a really cool opportunity as well. So, just every single input is something. That input is a waste product for them, but an extremely … if we had to go buy that as an input and it’s a waste product for them, if we had to buy that as an input, it’d be a very expensive product. So, we’ve been very lucky to have just these really natural … And that’s the thing, too, is we give tours all the time. Chefs will come and they’re just like, “Wow.” It’s so vertically integrated that it’s all just single source, it’s raised here. It’s bred here, it’s processed here. It’s packed here, it’s delivered. We do all the deliveries ourselves down through Seattle region and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And again, it’s mostly chefs and restaurants that are driving this demand right now?

Devin Day:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because rabbit, like we were talking about earlier, it’s not something you find in the grocery store. It’s really not a common meat anymore. As you were mentioning, it used to be a lot more common. So it’s just kind of coming back.

Devin Day:
And that’s the thing. Like I came from, like I said, a tech marketing internet marketing background, you’re always looking for a niche, right? I don’t want to do something that everybody else is doing. So if you can find enough people for that niche, there you go. And it was funny, I said, “Hey …” I told my wife, I said, “Let’s try selling it online.” Because another benefit with rabbits is it’s not licensed by the USDA. It’s FDA regulated. So, I don’t have the same interstate regulations, so I can, and it’s not like poultry, I can, with my WSDA license, I can ship all over the place-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Devin Day:
Anywhere in the nation, which is great. So the demand, I optimized my site because I had an SEO background. My rankings on Google skyrocketed organically because I knew what I was doing. I said, “Okay babe, let’s flip the switch.” I flipped the switch, and literally I woke up the next morning with a few orders and I’m like, “Oh boy.” So, we started shipping and again, we shipped to individuals and I take it down to my local little small town post office, and off it goes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do people get weird about eating rabbit?

Devin Day:
Not if they’re buying it.

Dillon Honcoop:
But the perception, especially until they’ve tried it is, “Oh, that’s weird.” Or maybe-

Devin Day:
There are a few out there. I’ve had those conversations. But usually when I explain the benefit versus their understanding of it, they tend to be like, “Oh wow, that’s really interesting. That makes a lot of sense. Wow, okay.” And then when I tell them we used to do beef and we needed 200 acres and now we don’t do that and now I grow it in a third of an acre, they’re like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” So, I don’t usually get the, “Oh, you’re an evil rabbit raiser.” I know that there’s those folks out there that are kind of sensitive to that. But the good, I mean, they’re almost the ideal meat in a way. They’re such a clean animal. So, that’s … So, they slaughter in a very clean fashion, where you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
What about the cute factor, though? People think rabbits are cute, so it may be harder for them to-

Devin Day:
Yeah. Well, if you come over and get bit by a few rabbits, they’re not going to be as cute to you as they are.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with cows being kicked, pushed, they’re smelly. I don’t have any problem eating cows, but some people do.

Devin Day:
Yeah, no they are, and that’s the thing is that the kind of compartmentalization. We adore and go far and beyond, even for a rabbit that’s hurt or … we have this attachment to them, but at the same time, we understand and have what they’re for. They’re for the food system. We also have a bunch of pets, too, rabbits. All my kids have their own pet rabbits. They’re different breeds but these are bred as a commercial meat rabbit. That’s the breeders and the breed and the strain that I bought them for and from and they are quite a different animal than your standard pet. So, but it’s kind of having a respect for them at the same time. We … I’ll tell you a really … My wife still teases me about this sometimes, in a fun way. So, I had a mom that had a litter and it really, and it’s not because of the revenue factor, but I hate when rabbits, when they’re born and they don’t make it. It bothers me. We’ve had a very high success rate from where we started to now of our birthrates staying very high. But it still bugs me. I try to get to 100% because I just, I don’t like losing rabbits and it’s not because I’m thinking, “Oh, that guy doesn’t get to go to slaughter in eight weeks.” It’s because it’s a life at that point.

Devin Day:
So, I thought, “I wonder …” You ever seen that scene in 101 Dalmatians where he’s rubbing the dog and it comes back to life, the little puppies when they’re born? Well, I actually gave a baby rabbit just born that was stillborn mouth-to-mouth because I just … Just little, little, puff, puff, little chest compressions. It was a total blob in my hand. It wasn’t firm, like normal little … And it took this huge, and it was just out of curiosity, took this huge gasp of air. And within like two minutes was firm, hard and just as healthy as the other ones. Blew my mind. And I’ve done that many times now because some reason they come out not breathing, if you get a little bit of air in their lungs and they’re so tiny, you don’t even have to really do much. You just get a little air moving through their nostrils and air vent and they, a lot of times, just pop right back up. Take a big gasp and there they are.

Devin Day:
It’s weird. You learn a lot of these little things that you’d never think of, and I think of all the little babies that I could have saved if I’d known that. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. It reminds me of Erica Deward that we had on the podcast a while back. She raises dairy cows and a lot of people get grossed out, but she tells the story all the time, she does CPR, mouth-to-mouth quite a bit on dairy calves. It works. It’s a real thing.

Devin Day:
No, it’s still to this day … the other thing that works really well is, and again, we don’t use any pharmaceuticals, so there’s never withdrawal period, even with the breeders themselves. We use high dose vitamin C. I have had little kits, they’re called, but little baby rabbits just born, and various issues or whatever. If there’s ever an issue that goes beyond something that isn’t like it came out not breathing or something like that, I’ll give it a little shot of high dose vitamin C. So, for us, the equivalent of kilograms of my body weight, if I were to take what I gave the rabbit, it would probably be 30-40,000 milligrams of vitamin C, and they come right back.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Devin Day:
Especially if it’s anything viral or bacterial. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they’re animals. They have their things.

Devin Day:
I just don’t want to piss off the pharmaceutical companies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Devin Day:
But yeah, it’s an amazing thing. It works time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time ad nauseum again. It is, when traditional hasn’t worked, works almost every time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family. You’ve talked about your wife and making decision to go from town to farm and do that whole switch, and kids too. You were mentioning they’ve got some pets and stuff. How big is your family? How many kids do you have? How old are they?

Devin Day:
I have four kids. So, one is right in that decision making of looking for his first place, so he’s 20. The other one is, jeez, my wife is going to smack me. No, 14. No, just turned 15. 15, 13, and just turned 11 recently. Two boys, two girls-

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that … you were talking about, that was a part of the draw to go to the farming world. What has that meant for your kids and your family?

Devin Day:
Oh, they’ve loved it. We have … We’re on the Nooksack River so we have, they get to go down there all the time if they want. They have 200 acres to roam around on, which is cool. All the time we have two UTV vehicles and my youngest, who just turned 11, I’ll be working somewhere and I’ll see her way across the field just, “Do-do-do-do.” Flying down in one of the vehicles, doing one of her own projects. I’m just like, I love it. I love it.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was me growing up.

Devin Day:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
I had my motorcycle and I was out doing this, that and the other thing.

Devin Day:
So, that’s been good. They … It’s everything we do here, it’s family-run. The maple, the rabbits, my wife, she does all the breeding. She’s kind of the project manager of the up close and personal with all the rabbits. She breeds them. She clips all their nails. She brushes them. So, every time they get bred, it’s kind of spa day for the does, and she takes care of all that. She keeps all the records, breeding records, all that kind of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your kids going to get into farming at all? Have they worked-

Devin Day:
They’re all helping right now, yeah. We just added a bunch … we added 600 egg chickens, which was probably not a good … that, I probably should have waited a little while on.

Dillon Honcoop:
We were just talking about chickens being smelly.

Devin Day:
Yeah, I know. So, yeah, go big or go home, right? So, all the kids help. They feed, they water, they help clean. They do everything with us. So it’s a side-by … what’s cool though, is the amount of entrepreneurial side of things that they’ve learned is great. They’ve seen mom and dad start from scratch multiple businesses, and they’re both doing really well now. So, they get to see that, they get to participate in that. They get to ask questions. They get to understand all of the factors that go into it because mom does bookkeeping, dad does deliveries. Dad does slaughter, dad builds out and designs WSDA facilities. Dad, you know so you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
Does SEO. Don’t forget about the website stuff.

Devin Day:
Yeah, he does all of the web stuff. So they get to see every aspect of it and they’ve learned a ton. And all the time, they’re coming up with their own ideas and participating and solving problems. It’s been good. It’s been real good.

Dillon Honcoop:
The way you describe that is farming is so much more than the old guy in overalls turning dirt. The tech part of it. The construction part of it. The family part of it. Working with the animals. There’s just so multifaceted.

Devin Day:
Yeah. Farming is, in a lot of ways, to me, and the way I’ve approached it is very different than … I think it was Joe Salatan, I’ve watched a lot of his content over the years, and he’s always talking about the age of farmers. The average farmer is 60 plus years old. So, the way I’ve approached it, there is a lot of aspects to it and I’m actually, because of today’s market access, that’s one of the biggest things I’ve heard other farmers talk about, and I think I was very lucky to have worked in that sales, marketing, that whole role because I wasn’t afraid to go out there and get my hands dirty to talking to people. I’ll walk right into a restaurant I don’t even know the chef. I’ll introduce myself. I’ll take him a product. I do have the benefit of a pretty unique story. Maple syrup made in Washington. There’s nothing like that in the United States. We’re the first. And then, a rabbit with probably the highest meat to beat bone ratio they’ve ever seen.

Devin Day:
So, the conversation goes well quickly. I’m not bringing in a very common product. So, that’s been a good selling point. But I had to think that through beforehand. I could have done potatoes or chickens or broccoli or something. But I wanted to do something a little different. And we kind of stumbled into the maple but the rabbits were a little bit of a process of understanding a niche because it’s not common.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ve kind of touched on the maple stuff but we haven’t really gotten into that. So, your stepdad was kind of playing with this, like you described, cooking out in the woods. No, not meth. He was cooking maple syrup in the woods, proving essentially that you can do maple syrup out here because-

Devin Day:
We were told for, told and told and told that it’s not possible to do, even by most of the experts in air quotes. And we’re doing it. Not in large quantities yet. We do about 200 gallons annually right now, which is, for the ratio you need on the West Coast versus the East Coast of sap to a finished product, we’re at times almost double. So you’ve got to collect a lot of sap. I kind of, just for ease of math consider it 100 to one. On the East Coast, it’s like 40 to one. Oftentimes, it’s even more than double. I just used that … and it’s often, right in that 75. I would say that after all the years of doing it, the average sap to finished maple syrup ratio is probably 75 to one on the West Coast, so you need a lot. We probably collect about 25-30000 gallons of sap a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
To get the 200-

Devin Day:
To get the 200-

Dillon Honcoop:
Gallons of finished product?

Devin Day:
Yeah. But we also get 10 times the price for it as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Break down in a nutshell, what is that process of collecting sap? I think the old school understanding and people who’ve seen the pictures from back East, where it’s a huge thing, somebody tapping a tree and I think old school way was I think hanging a bucket on a tree and that was it-

Devin Day:
Hanging a bucket, yeah. When we started … When we first started, it was all gravity, meaning, and by gravity I mean you’d drill a little hole, you put your tap in. You have a little tube that goes into a bucket sitting on the ground with a little hole in it so you’re not getting much rainwater in it. That was, that’s how we started. We would go out and we would have all these little buckets everywhere, and it was a very tedious process. You had to lug these five gallon jugs, one in each hand, and that’s five times eight, that’s 40 pounds in each hand. And you’re walking and tripping. It was a lot of work. So, we started that way and he would take it up in his truck and go to his little handmade boiler and cook out in the woods. The woods being next to his shop by his house.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Devin Day:
It mainly started as Christmas gifts and it just, the word got out. I took some samples to chefs. But it was that process that encouraged him to take it to the next step. Understand what they do on the East Coast, get a little more technical. Put a little technology into it. So, he hooked up a trailer, got in his truck, grabbed his wife and headed off to Wisconsin to buy one of those big stainless steel evaporators that cooks sap. Brought it back with some other equipment-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you pull the sap from the trees essentially, and that goes into this-

Devin Day:
Evaporator-

Dillon Honcoop:
Evaporator, which is basically cooking it down.

Devin Day:
There is one other step prior to that which is, so you have all the taps running. It’s like a big vein system, and all these connect back to a big mainline that runs through the woods.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tubes everywhere.

Devin Day:
Yep, tubes everywhere. So it looks like a big artery system running through the woods. And then it comes back to a vacuum system in a little pump house.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what does this syrup taste like? What have people been saying about it?

Devin Day:
Well, it’s a little thicker than your traditional East Coast. There’s more minerals. There’s, because of that concentrated level that you have to, you know, the gallons that you need, you get a bit more caramel type flavors that come out. You get hints of vanilla. You even, if you have good taste buds and you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, you can pull out little hints of coffee, all kinds of stuff. Because of the rarity factor and just because of the kind of different flavor profiles, it’s been far more used as like cooking and pastries and recipes and sauces. One of the restaurants that we work with down in Seattle, they replaced all their refined sugar with it because it’s not … I mean, you tasted it, right? It’s very sweet, but it’s not overly sweet, right? It’s got a lot of depth to it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Devin Day:
So, it’s been very popular from a cooking standpoint and a recipe standpoint. Just to give you kind of an understand of quantities that are made, there’s about 12 million gallons of East Coast syrup made annually in the US. There’s 200 gallons, 200 gallons of Big Leaf Maple. So, these are different species of maple over here. So, it’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus the sugar maple?

Devin Day:
Versus the sugar maple from the East Coast. And so, it’s … And because of our forestry practices here, you find these little pockets of Big Leaf maple groves, and when you do, it’s kind of like a … for us, it’s like a little mini gold rush. You’re out hunting and you find these groves of maple or you talk to somebody that works on state land or something. They’ve given us access to go up and look and hunt and find and test and see how the trees run up there. It’s gotten a lot of attention from that perspective because it was a weed. They poisoned the maple so they’ll quit growing but often they just continued to grow because they’re like a weed. They just won’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, I know you see a certain huge sustainability opportunity with this maple syrup thing, especially out here on the West Coast.

Devin Day:
Yeah. If you look at all the ways to deal with our changing climates and things like that, there’s one of the top ways, if you go and study it, is planting trees. There’s a lot of really good articles and there’s a lot of news coming out now, and planting trees is up there. So, what we see is because the tree itself living provides the revenue source, it continues … it’s like it’s own economic engine. The more you plant, the more you can continue this economic energy. But the trees themselves, they’re a huge shading factor for streams. They rebuild soils every year with the leaves that fall. They … just the trees themselves, they pull carbon out. There’s so many factors that go into them, you don’t have to cut them down. That’s the great part.

Devin Day:
They provide habitat for animals, bugs, just diversity. And the cooler thing is they need zero irrigation. They need zero fertilizing. They don’t need any inputs. You plant them and they grow like a weed.

Dillon Honcoop:
They can grow on poor ground too, right?

Devin Day:
They can grow on pretty poor ground. They can grow on very wet ground too, so it’s kind of like when you have [inaudible 00:38:51] areas and wetland areas and they’re planting that to remain that way. A maple’s a really good tree that can thrive in those kind of areas. So, you can have these non-prime so to speak agriculture areas where you could plant these along creeks and streams and this and they’ll continue to provide a high quality sap that is extremely … the demand is so high right now. We’re backed up years in … we just can’t produce enough and-

Dillon Honcoop:
But there’s only 200 gallons. How far can that demand go? How much of a market do you think is there? Is there any way to even tell?

Devin Day:
Well, they produce 12 million gallons on the East Coast and it hasn’t slowed down. So, I can only imagine how much we could produce here as … and because of the flavor profile, it’s not a replacement. It’s not a … but it’s something that can become another food product out there that can continue to provide reforestation. So, you look at all the hills around here and they’re either clear cut. You have a lot of fir trees with laminated root rot or beetle disease. So, there is a lot of revenue potential as a crop that you don’t have to destroy when the crop is done. There’s no tilling. There’s no … For me, it checks all the boxes. It’s been a pretty amazing … All of those factors combined is why it’s getting a ton of attention. Most of these, a lot of the schools are funded with the state lands and the forestry and things like that, and this is definitely another avenue of funding that can go into the forestry program.

Devin Day:
Just as an aside to that, you talk about where could this go? What’s it doing? We’ve proven that commercially, it’s desired. That it’s doable, and that it can be done on the West Coast. All it needs is some scaling. But like University of Washington, we’ve been working with them. They actually got a pretty large grant that is for a maple program and research for maple syrup, it’s from USDA. And normally East Coast, it would be funding on the East Coast with one of the schools over there, Cornell or some of the schools that have maple programs. But they got the grant because of the article we had in Seattle Magazine showing that the commercial aspect of maple syrup on the West can be done.

Devin Day:
So, now they’re diving into the research. Washington State University has been calling and discussing the whole viability of this on this side. And there’s so much untapped trees out there that it’s a very viable, potential program without doing a lot of damage. Once you put up the infrastructure, it can be there for 10 plus years before you need to replace lines. So, every year, that same revenue stream is there without having to remove the tree to get that profit. That just … that’s mind blowing to me. And then you can, we’re working on ways to row crop it, like raspberries, and the revenue per acre, it’s huge. Huge with the Big Leaf Maples.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future? Not just this but farming and farming here in Washington State?

Devin Day:
I talk to foodies all the time. Like the new generation of foodies, the new generation of chefs, the new generation of farmers. And, a lot of it just comes to overall practice. There’s a lot of stigma right now … you hear the whole thing of, “Oh, we got to get rid of meat and everyone’s got to start having a plant-based diet.” I don’t know. I think a lot of it is just … Thinking about it, I have a kind of a concept that I looked at called small food, and it kind of evolved as I was doing the rabbits from the transition of the cows. It’s not necessarily that we need to stop eating meat or that we’re all going to start eating bugs like you read in some of the articles. I’m not going to start eating bugs for my protein source. But I think we have to be thinking and conscious about how we’re doing things. If you think about it, today, I think that farming is going to move … You can hear next door. We’re next door to … they’re cooking syrup next door and you can hear the filter pump kick on, and it’s bub-bub-bub-bub-bub. It’s awesome.

Devin Day:
It’s not just about having a unique food. It’s about how to scale it and get … it’s very hard right now with the mechanisms in place to get to that marketplace, and naturally-

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus the cost of getting there-

Devin Day:
Plus the cost of getting there, absolutely-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that cost makes it difficult for instance to feed the masses.

Devin Day:
And that’s the thing is I’ve been lucky because I know how to develop business models. I know how to think through niches, so I’m in a unique position. I am excited to see these things evolve in a way where those marketplaces get opened up to small farmers. Right now, it’s all CSAs and farmer’s markets. Those aren’t really large growth factors for opening up big market channels for these farmers to scale.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fascinating. Thank you for sharing your story and journey to this point. It’s going to be fun to watch some of the stuff that you … I mean, you’ve already come up with so much here already and you strike me as the kind of person who’s going to keep coming up with more and more stuff.

Devin Day:
Yeah, it’s growing rapidly. It’s a lot of fun. And yeah, we’ll … The biggest thing that I like doing is sharing the information. I don’t … to me, this isn’t about profit. It’s about making change, and I’m not talking about just the sappy side of let’s change. I mean truly getting people involved in something that benefits them, benefits the market, benefits the animals, benefits the planet. It’s got to be that whole picture and I love sharing that information because it’s not just about making profit.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people are ready for that. They’re done with the slogans-

Devin Day:
Yeah, they are-

Dillon Honcoop:
And they want real-

Devin Day:
Absolutely. I totally agree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Devin Day:
Yeah, appreciate it.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Seriously, that maple syrup was incredible. You really should try it if you can manage to get your hands on it. As he was explaining, they make so little of it and the demand is just growing like crazy. Thanks again for joining us for the podcast today with Devin Day. As you can tell, he’s a super outside the box thinker, does really unique stuff and has such a cool story to share as well about his family and his background and what he sees for the future, too. I think we’ll be talking with him again on the podcast. I know he has so many ideas about what farming could look like.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, this is the Real Food, Real People podcast documenting my journey to hear farmer’s real stories and share them with you here on the podcast as well as at realfoodrealpeople.org. Please subscribe if you can on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Google Podcasts and the list goes on and on and on from there. Pretty much any podcast platform, you can find us. Also feel free to drop me an email any time you have an idea for the show, some feedback, maybe something you liked or didn’t like or whatever. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Again, thanks for being here and we will catch you next week on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online on savefamilyfarming.org.